Days Without End by Sebastian Barry. Book Review.
Days Without End by Sebastian Barry. Book Review.
Twice Booker-shortlisted author Sebastian Barry returns with a sensational new novel set in mid-19th Century America, an intensely poignant story of two men and the lives they are dealt.
'Time was not something then we thought of as an item that possessed an ending, but something that would go on for ever, all rested and stopped in that moment. Hard to say what I mean by that. You look back at all the endless years when you never had that thought. I am doing that now as I write these words in Tennessee. I am thinking of the days without end of my life. And it is not like that now...'
Having signed up for the US army in the 1850s, aged barely seventeen, Thomas McNulty and his brother-in-arms, John Cole, go on to fight in the Indian wars and, ultimately, the Civil War.
Orphans of terrible hardships themselves, they find these days to be vivid and alive, despite the horrors they both see and are complicit in.
Moving from the plains of the West to Tennessee, Sebastian Barry's latest work is a masterpiece of atmosphere and language. Both an intensely poignant story of two men and the lives they are dealt, and a fresh look at some of the most fateful years in America's past, Days Without End is a novel never to be forgotten.
“Time was not something then we thought of as an item that possessed an ending, but something that would go on forever, all rested and stopped in that moment. Hard to say what I mean by that. You look back at all the endless years when you never had that thought. I am doing that now as I write these words in Tennessee. I am thinking of the days without end of my life. And it is not like that now.
Sebastian Barry in Days Without End
They were just teenagers when they met, Thomas McNulty and John Cole, sheltering under a hedge from the sudden downpour of rain. Both thin and starving, they decided two had better chance at surviving than one alone and became firm friends, and lovers, and partners.
Together they joined the army, as a means of survival really, and found themselves at war first against the Indians, and then wearing the blue of the North against the Confederates in the Civil War.
Thomas from Ireland and John Cole with Indian blood in his veins, doing what they had to do to survive.
Survival became all the more important after they took on a young Indian girl, who became more daughter than maid.
They were a family. And family, for Thomas and John Cole, meant everything.
The story was told through Thomas, and we saw every bit of horror he endured through his war years and beyond, for hardship seemed to follow him. Despite being told in first person perspective however, there was a sense of detachment to the trauma; perhaps a protective mechanism. How else could one survive such times with life and limb, mind and soul, intact?
There was a sense of distance too between the reader and the characters. Thomas was open with us about his love for John Cole; their relationship was not a secret, nor was it embellished. It just was. But this story was about Thomas. John Cole was there, he was always there, but I didn’t really get to know him as much as I would have liked.
Thomas spoke unemotionally, he spoke factually, about war, about death, and about John Cole. Perhaps simply a sign of the times, or from the writing style itself, but this created a barrier to me investing in the characters. The very fact that Thomas called John Cole ‘John Cole‘ the entire length of the narrative also served to keep me at a distance.
“They don’t run over this darkness to love us. They want our lives and to cut out our hearts and murder us and still us and stop us. I have a big sergeant trying to get his Bowie into me and I am obliged to run his stomach with the bayonet.”
The prose certainly was stylised, although I wouldn’t describe it as beautiful.
There were moments of poetry:
“Moonlight pouring down through the scrubby oaks as if a thousand dresses.“
“It is so silent you could swear the moon is listening. The owls are listening and the wolves.“
“Dark fields and troubled crops, the big sky growing melancholy with evening.“
And whilst I appreciate the skill of writing in such a way to transport the reader in time and place, I never felt comfortable with the writing style, it was something I was constantly aware of. This distracted me from being entirely engrossed in the story.
Days Without End has been longlisted for The Man Booker Prize 2017. I will be surprised if it doesn’t make the shortlist; it has already won the Costa Book Award for Novel and the Costa Book of the Year in 2016, and the Walter Scott Prize in 2017.
Whilst I didn’t love this novel, I do understand how it has received many glowing reviews. It certainly does provide a unique perspective on a much-written-about time in history. But it isn’t for everyone, and for me it was just ok.
Have you read Days Without End? I’d love to hear your thoughts!
Let’s discuss in the comments below.
You can purchase Days Without End using my affiliate links here:
You can also subscribe, over in the sidebar, to receive the latest posts straight to your inbox!
Find us on Facebook
Follow me on Wordpress