Sebastian Barry is one of my favourite Irish authors; having enjoyed his last three novels, The Temporary Gentleman, On Canaan’s Side and The Secret Scripture, I began to read his latest one, Days Without End, not really knowing or caring what it was about. I knew I could count on Barry to have produced another beautifully written novel and I was sure that would be enough. Unfortunately, it wasn’t – I still found things to like and to admire, but this just wasn’t my sort of book.
Thomas McNulty and John Cole are “two wood-shavings of humanity in a rough world” who meet in Missouri as teenagers while sheltering from the rain together under a hedge. It’s the 1850s and Thomas, having lost his family to the famine in Ireland, has fled to America in search of a better life. John, who was born in New England, is the first friend Thomas has made in his new country and the two quickly become inseparable. The first thing they need to do is find employment and here their youthful good looks prove useful when a saloon owner offers them a job as dancers, on the condition that they dress up in women’s clothes to entertain the local miners.
At seventeen, considering themselves too old to continue their dancing act, Thomas and John leave the saloon and join the US Army. Fighting first in the Indian Wars and later in the Civil War (on the Union side), it’s a difficult life and the two young soldiers face dangers and obstacles ranging from hunger and illness to extreme weather and encounters with Native Americans. Throughout all of this there are two things that sustain them: their love for each other and their relationship with Winona, a young Sioux girl separated from her family during a raid.
Days Without End is narrated by Thomas McNulty and this provides a link with several of Barry’s previous novels which tell the stories of other members of the McNulty family (he has also written several which focus on another Irish family, the Dunnes). Thomas, though, is obviously from an earlier generation of McNultys; the other novels are set in the 20th century, which makes this one feel a bit different. Another difference is that this book is set in the American West rather than Ireland – and I think this is probably why I had a problem. Westerns are not a genre I would usually choose to read (although I did love Patrick DeWitt’s The Sisters Brothers) and too much of this novel just didn’t interest me at all.
If the setting does sound of interest to you, then I would have no hesitation in recommending this book even though I didn’t particularly enjoy it myself. Sebastian Barry is a very talented writer and there are some beautiful passages in this novel; the poetic narrative voice didn’t always sound very convincing coming from the down-to-earth soldier, Thomas McNulty, but that didn’t really matter – the beautiful, poetic writing was the reason I chose to read this book, after all.
What I did struggle with was reading page after page of descriptions of army life, buffalo shooting expeditions and battles against the Sioux. I don’t think the balance between these aspects of the story and the more personal aspects was quite right and I very nearly gave up on the book halfway through. I kept reading mainly because I wanted to know what would happen to Winona – and I was rewarded with an interesting and dramatic ending to her storyline.
Days Without End has its good points and its bad points, then, and I think my disappointment with it is entirely due to my personal reading tastes. I shouldn’t have assumed that just because I’ve loved everything else I’ve read by Sebastian Barry I would love this one too, despite a setting and subject which didn’t appeal to me. I’m still looking forward to going back and exploring his earlier novels; I have a copy of Annie Dunne, which sounds much more like the kind of book I would enjoy, so that’s probably the one I’ll be reading next.
Thanks to Faber & Faber for providing a copy of this book via NetGalley for review.