Reviewed by Harriet
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.
So writes the narrator of Sebastian Barry’s latest work, Thomas McNulty from Sligo, who travelled to America aged seventeen and signed up for the US Army. Set in the middle years of the nineteenth century, this is a strange, powerful, beautiful novel, which tells Thomas’s story from his adolescence through to his maturity. And what an amazing story it is. For a large part of the narrative Thomas is a soldier, fighting first in the Indian Wars and later in the Civil War, alongside his friend and lover John Cole. As a soldier he is brave and fearless, but he has another side, one that emerges early when the two boys, virtually starving, are taken on to work in a mining-town saloon: their job, to dress as girls and dance for, and with, the customers. This proves to be surprisingly innocent work, as the miners are wonderfully respectful, grateful for the chance to simply dance, even with fake women. But it’s also, for Thomas, an introduction to cross-dressing, something that will play an important part in his future life, until he comes to the realisation that ‘I feel a woman more than I ever felt a man, though I were a fighting man most of my days.’
This state of being, which is recognised today but would have seemed strange to Thomas’s peers, was nevertheless a category known to the Indians with whom Thomas and John spend time either fighting or fraternising. There’s a important moment early on when they see a group of ‘braves dressed in the finery of squaws’:
John Cole gazes on them but he don’t like to let his eyes linger too long in case he gives offence. But he’s like the plough-horse that got the whins. All woken in a way I don’t see before.
This moment is significant not just for what is reveals to the boys about gender; it also points forward to an important transformation in their attitude to the Indians, who are at first their enemy but who, in time, they come to grudgingly and not uncomplicatedly admire. Through a strange set of circumstances they end up adopting a little Indian girl, who they call Winona, ‘a flower of a girl’, who grows up to be their help, their pride and their joy. A happy and contented family, they set up home in Tennessee, where Thomas lives as, and is accepted as, a woman. But his past catches up with him, and this ‘Fool’s Paradise’ of a life is disrupted by his arrest and sentencing to hard labour. Not forever, though, and he is finally ‘set free like a mourning dove’. In the novel’s conclusion we see him heading on foot towards home:
I had wrote I was coming and soon I would be there. That’s how it was. It were only a short stretch of walking down through those pleasing states of Missouri and Tennessee.
This novel is many things, among them a wonderfully conceived portrait of America at an important period of its development, a serious look at war, a thoughtful approach to the problem of the relations of the Indians with their conquerers and oppressors. But it’s also, importantly, a love story. John Cole remains a relatively silent figure throughout, but there is no mistaking his strength and his beauty, and never a moment when Thomas has doubted that the two of them are meant to be together, since their first encounter as teenagers, under a hedge in Missouri:
Heavens open. I scarper for cover and suddenly he’s there. Might never have seen him otherwise. Friend for a whole life. Strange and fateful encounter you might say. Lucky.
You can see from the extracts I’ve quoted how Barry reproduces Thomas’s voice – he’s reflecting back on his past, and comes over as a thoughtful man but a largely uneducated one. But Thomas also has eyes to see and a heart to appreciate the beauty of what he sees around him:
The curious birds of America were calling among the trees and from the far heights dropped the myriad sparkles of frost.
Empurpled rapturous hills I guess and the long day brushstroke by brushstroke enfeebling into darkness and the fires blooming on the pitch plains.
I’ve written on here before about my admiration for Barry, who has, I believe unfairly, narrowly missed a Booker prize twice. But while winning prizes is a fine thing, it’s not by any means a guarantee of greatness, and nor is not winning them a sign of inferiority. Will Days Without End make the Booker list? I don’t know or actually care. I loved every minute of it.
Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books
Sebastian Barry, Days Without End (Faber, 2016). 978-0571277001, 259pp., hardback.BUY at Blackwell’s via our affiliate link (free UK P&P)