Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

"Days without end" by Sebastian Barry (Faber and Faber, 2016)

"The method of laying out a corpse in Missouri sure took the proverbial cake" begins this novel, which we later realise is from the viewpoint of Thomas McNulty, from Sligo. He went to Canada in the mid 1800s because of famine, met John Cole on the road. They dressed up as girls and danced with miners in a bar until puberty, after which they joined the army, fighting Indians. He's involved with massacres, with fire squads. Indians are an alien culture, impossible to understand. Amongst them are cross-dressers. Some work with the soldiers as scouts. Some of the officers are cruel to the Indians. Others are charitable - "Major instituted an Indian school for the many children racing about and the offspring of the troopers that have took Indian wives" (p.83). The major returns one year with a wife - "Every little thing she says has grammar in it, she sounds like a bishop" (p.87).

When they're 25 they leave the army for a while, take with them a 9 year-old Indian girl, Winona, share a house, perform in a variety show, Thomas in drag. Then, because their ex-officer asks them, they return to fighting, this time in the Civil War. They surrender to the Rebs, spend time in a prisoner camp, get released, go south to help an ex-soldier friend on his Tennessee farm. They marry in 1866. Winona, now 17, is asked to return to her tribe in exchange for the major's daughter. She does so. Thomas retrieves her after the exchange and dresses as a woman to escape with her back to the farm. He adopts a female persona from then on. There's a legal complication that causes him to be given a death sentence, but he's spared.

McNulty's language is surprisingly lyrical at times -

  • "The grasses were sere and indifferent really, scratching the horizon of the sky" (p.42)
  • "Then rain began to fall in an extravagant tantrum" (p.48)
  • "The snow storm is just a thing of threadbare veils, we can see everything" p.112
  • "Old lakes like seas, old woods as dark as childhood fears, and sudden towns all swank and mud. Mr Noone he still ain't so old we find. He is as dapper as a mackerel" p.123
  • "The war is widening everywhere. But the clock of the day turns just the same. Bugle and barked order. The big supply wagons dragged by oxen hove into camp. Well we was nearly eating bullets. got a little boneyard full of the winter's haul. Fr Giovanni likes his brandy but he always does the honours" p.163
  • "The breeze has swung round to the east and now a million small waves appear on the river. Lace from a million seamstresses. The old heralds of the twilight are a slow blindness across the land and a long high colour the colour of apples seeps into the sky" p.171

Such a style makes even the battle scenes readable. McNulty's Irishness is brought into play - "When that old ancient Cromwell come to Ireland he said he would leave nothing alive. Said the Irish were vermin and devils. Clean out the country for good people to step into. Make a paradise. Now we make this American paradise I guess. Guess it be strange so many Irish boys doing this work" p.263

Information's delayed.

  • On p.33 we learn that McNulty and John Cole are secret lovers.
  • It's only on p.62 that we learn whose funeral began the book.
  • On p.88 it says "I look back over fifty years of life" - the first clue that the narrator's retrospecting.

There are several plot-turns that sound contrived, and I don't think that 2 men could live that way without being found out. I don't find that a problem.

Other reviews

  • Katy Simpson Smith (With uncommon delicacy, Barry reminds us that individual humans buzz about the land like mosquitoes: causing mischief, dying, being born, forgetting.)
  • Allan Massie

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