Days Without End, by Sebastian Barry

>> Thursday, August 24, 2017

TITLE: Days Without End
AUTHOR: Sebastian Barry

PAGES: 259

SETTING: Mid 19th century US
TYPE: Fiction

From the two-time Man Booker Prize finalist Sebastian Barry, “a master storyteller” (Wall Street Journal), comes a powerful new novel of duty and family set against the American Indian and Civil Wars.

Thomas McNulty, aged barely seventeen and having fled the Great Famine in Ireland, signs up for the U.S. Army in the 1850s. With his brother in arms, John Cole, Thomas goes on to fight in the Indian Wars—against the Sioux and the Yurok—and, ultimately, the Civil War. Orphans of terrible hardships themselves, the men find these days to be vivid and alive, despite the horrors they see and are complicit in.

Moving from the plains of Wyoming to Tennessee, Sebastian Barry’s latest work is a masterpiece of atmosphere and language. An intensely poignant story of two men and the makeshift family they create with a young Sioux girl, Winona, Days Without End is a fresh and haunting portrait of the most fateful years in American history and is a novel never to be forgotten.
This is the story of Thomas MucNulty and his beloved "handsome John Cole". Tom was born in a middle class family in Ireland, but the Great Famine left him on his own as a very young boy and desperate enough to stow away onto a ship going to the US. When we meet him, he's been making his own way for a while, and has just teamed up with another young boy, John Cole. For a few years they live the high life as dancing girls in a saloon, but once beards start to grow and voices drop, that's not quite the job for them any longer. Without many choices, they join the army, and off they go to kill some Indians.

I really struggled with this one, right from the beginning. Well, actually, not quite right from the beginning, because I loved the bit at the start where Tom and John are dancing in the saloon. But once they join the army and the horrors began to unfold... the senseless killings of Indians, the grime and disease and hardship... I struggled. The horrors were too horrific, and the almost numb way in which they were being narrated, kind of from a distance, even though it was Tom telling us in the first person and he'd been right in the middle of things, kind of made them worse. There was something about the lack of judgment that got into me and made me not want to read any more. It was weird, because I didn't really care about any of the characters beyond Tom and John, and still the ugliness (both in the circumstances and in the spirit of the men around them) got to me.

So I deleted the book from my kindle once I got to about the 1/3 mark. And then I read the summary above again, and the bit about "An intensely poignant story of two men and the makeshift family they create with a young Sioux girl" made me reconsider. I downloaded it again, and kept going.

I soon got to the point about the makeshift family, and that was good. The language worked, and I loved this quite fresh view of life in mid-19th century US, as well as the tender sentiment narrated without a jot of sentimentality. But then we got back to the war. The enemy changed from Indians to "Rebs", but the oppressive, overwhelming ugliness and my difficulty actually caring was the same. I read another third, over several days, forcing myself to pick up the book and having to use all my will not to skim, but after that, I gave up.

It's interesting, because the language is one of the elements that seems to be most appreciated by readers who loved this book, but it was a big reason why I gave up. The writing is quite idiosyncratic, not quite stream of consciousness, but almost, with seemingly lackadaisical punctuation and words and expressions that are carefully chosen to fit the character who's using them. It's effective in telling us about Tom and showing us what it's like to be in his head, so I guess Barry accomplished what he set out to do. It just pushed me away, though, stopped me from being able to get near these characters and stopped me from wanting to read. So for me, it didn't work at all.

I'm really disappointed, because this was one I'd heard nothing but raves about. I really expected to love it, not to be defeated by it.



Liz Mc2 25 August 2017 at 18:05  

Lackadaisical punctuation? I think this one worked for me because I listened rather than reading. That kept me moving through the mostly episodic plot and really brought out the pleasures of the language (without any knowledge of stuff like how it was punctuated). At the beginning I wasn't sure I'd make it through, but I got hooked.

Rosario 26 August 2017 at 08:24  

I think, in hindsight, I probably should have gone for the audio. I do tend to struggle with this sort of thing.

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