After signing 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.
Having fled terrible hardships they find these days to be vivid and filled with wonder, despite the horrors they both see and are complicit in. Their lives are further enriched and imperilled when a young Indian girl crosses their path, and the possibility of lasting happiness emerges, if only they can survive.
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.
This year’s Costa prize went to a relatively brief first-person queer historical fiction novel about the American Civil War by an Irish man, namely, Days Without End by Sebastian Barry. A novel that puts the queer back into history, and looks like it might deal interestingly with racial issues in the past? Sign me up!
There is an approach to writing fiction set in Ireland, historical or contemporary, that is often though far from exclusively practiced by Americans, that a number of my friends refer to rather derisively as Oirish. Days Without End, by an Irish author writing about America, might be seen as revenge for that approach; call it, perhaps, ‘Murcan. Barry’s approach to Days Without End is stream-of-consciousness recollections from the Irish immigrant protagonist Thomas, meaning that the entire book is written in this strange ‘Murcan; it feels not only cliched but also impenetrable, which makes the whole book feel like something of a slog, rather a frustrating read.
The plot, on the other hand, has great potential; Days Without End covers United States conflict with the Native American tribes in the West, the Civil War, and the assaults on Native Americans by the United States under President Andrew Jackson. Barry isn’t willing to let America off the hook about its past, being very explicit about how often it has broken treaties with the Native Americans, and how appallingly it treated them. He’s also not romanticising the colonisation of the West, talking very clearly about the deprivations of the life of the early colonists and the lack of everything they suffered through. The Civil War is portrayed in the way it’s seen in the start of the film Free State of Jones: poor people who didn’t know why they were fighting, slaughtering each other in brutal, painful ways, with terrible mistreatment and neglect from the governments on both sides. Days Without End also doesn’t flinch from the cruelty of the Confederacy, and its remnants, towards African-Americans, free or slave; although it does have a tendency to also suggest that this exact same cruelty was often applied to the Irish – Barry suggests that conditions on the ships bringing Irish migrants to Canada and the United States were identical to those on slave ships.
Barry has an interesting approach to writing his queer central relationship. Days Without End doesn’t pretend queerness was either socially unremarkable, nor socially unheard of; he talks about soldiers having sex with each other on campaign in the absence of women, and about Thomas and his partner John not hiding their relationship from friends. However, there’s a less clear approach to gender taken in the book; while Barry has fleeting mentions of two-spirit people amongst the Native Americans, he also writes Thomas, across the course of the novel, exploring his gender presentation. If Days Without End had other clear queer couples this wouldn’t be a problem; as it is, it seems to confuse homosexuality and transness, as if they’re inextricably linked. That Barry doesn’t have Thomas come to a simple, single conclusion about his gender identity, or have him use modern terms, makes sense; however, the way he presents the questioning is frustrating.
Days Without End is a book with huge promise, and the Costa Award suggests that it fulfills it. The reality, though, is that Barry has written something that has grains of excellence, some brilliant and interesting elements, but overwhelmingly, it’s a frustrating slog.
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