By Francesca Howard
Do I really need to introduce Sebastian Barry? Having been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize twice before, and having won the Costa Book of the Year for a second time with Days Without End in 2016, it is clear that the celebrated Irish novelist is an old hand. Famed for his distinctly dense literary writing style and unparalleled mastery of the first person narrative, it is unsurprising that Barry’s most recent novel, Days Without End was highly anticipated. And we were not disappointed. Days Without End is, without doubt, one of the most extraordinary novels to have been published in the last few years.
Barry’s seven novels are intrinsically connected through the recurrence of two working-class families; the Dunnes of Dublin and the McNultys of Sligo. This helps a little to contextualise the historical events which ensue in North America in the mid-1800s, but more importantly, each novel builds upon the hallucinogenic and expansive world which Barry envisions.
The tale begins with Tom McNulty’s escape from the Irish famine of the 1840s to America in hope of a better life. After overcoming all odds and surviving the voyage, Tom begins to piece together a life for himself by becoming a teenage saloon performer, where he meets the beautiful John Cole, and they dress up as women to entertain the miners. ‘I was hungry and then on the ship. Then nothing. Then America. Then John Cole. John Cole was my love, all my love.’ Their secret love affair carries them through the physical and mental trials which they face after joining the US Cavalry to fight for the Union during America’s Civil War. The futile massacring of the Indians by chance leads them to a young Sioux girl, who they adopt and raise as their own; she provides them with hope of a future after the war. Throughout the war, we also see Thomas’ development into Thomasina, which seems perfectly untainted by the atrocities happening around him. His unconditional love for John Cole carries the plot and affirms the honesty and immediacy of his narrative, which in turn makes the horrors of war entirely comprehensible.
Yet, Barry seems to tap into a more archaic relationship at the plot’s foundations: the unyielding blows and fluctuations of nature’s course that intersect and mystify the ugly horrors of mankind. Early on in their journey, the troop reaches California and they momentarily settle in a forested valley. In perhaps one of the most haunting moments of the novel, Barry describes how dozens of troopers are swept away in a flash flood after the ‘rain began to fall in an extravagant tantrum.’ The flood was a ‘coming wave looked like twenty feet of death […] then the wild vicious thing reached our camp and spread itself over it carrying half of the forest with it […] it was like nature’s hand just swept them off the table.’ The charged descriptions of seasonal change and its unpredictability are set against the immense, panoramic migrations of the troops through the unceasing landscape, inspiring them, cursing them, and infecting the soldiers.
‘The rains came walking over the land, exciting the new grasses, thundering down, hammering like fearsome bullets, making the shards and dusts of the earth dance a violent jig. Making the grass seeds drunk with ambition.’
Thomas Mcnulty and his comrades physically embody the energy of the earth that surrounds them; the historical backdrop occasionally seems to fade away, for just a moment, and the simplicity of this bond is beautiful and heart-wrenching to witness.
The intensity, richness, and openness of Sebastian Barry’s lyrical prose is truly unique in its ability to evoke a landscape so vast yet introspective, otherworldly yet tangible. Barry is a visionary and Days Without End is his masterpiece.
Illustration: Katie Butler