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Days Without End


Days Without End

When I first picked up DAYS WITHOUT END, I put it down after reading the first three chapters, so drained of emotion that I doubted I could continue. But then I recalled having a similar gut reaction to Cormac McCarthy’s ALL THE PRETTY HORSES. Larry McMurtry served up the same sensory feast in LONESOME DOVE. So I picked it up again and dove in.

Young Thomas McNulty arrived in America on a fever ship, the sole family survivor of the potato famine in the early 19th century. He has been reduced to sinew and bone and determination by the time he makes his way to Missouri, where he meets John Cole, a handsome lad younger than himself. Neither has seen the age of 16. Their stories intertwine as they find employment disguised as dance hall “ladies,” treated with respect by the rough miners. Due to their small stature and lack of beard, they earn their keep in a St. Louis saloon, until puberty robs their youth and they join American troopers. Promises of a uniform and regular meals appeal to them, and they face whatever awaits their future. It is a fate that will lead them to California, then back to the Northern Plains to fight in the Indian Wars. Seasoned by years of military life, they later join the Union Army in the Civil War.

"How can a novel that runs 259 pages deliver so much? Sebastian Barry’s writing is so vibrant, passionate and graphic that it drives to the very center of your soul."

How can a novel that runs 259 pages deliver so much? Sebastian Barry’s writing is so vibrant, passionate and graphic that it drives to the very center of your soul. It assaults all of your senses: from descriptions of the blistering heat and bitter cold of the endless prairies, and the torrential rains that wipe out a half brigade of solders in mere moments, to the silent beauty of distant mountain peaks that can deliver a killer avalanche on a sunny day. He describes the bloodlust and thrill of a buffalo hunt that turns to deep remorse for the loss of a calf in the melee. When revenge on an Indian village following a raid on a settler’s town is revealed to have been triggered by the delayed arrival of promised food to the starving tribe, ties are broken and whole towns are destroyed by hatred, starvation and prejudice. Barry drives it all home in breathtaking, lyrical prose that leaves us in awe of the mind that can create such beauty and brutality, often within the same paragraph.

This narrative has become the backbone of American history until you think there can’t possibly be anything more to write about it. Some, like the aforementioned works by McMurtry and McCarthy, transcend the concept of the western genre to literature. Is it a coincidence that these three compelling novelists are Irish? Perhaps it is because of Ireland’s violent past and more than a century of bigotry in America that Irish writers are able to see both sides of natives and outsiders taking lands.

Barry said in a recent interview that the Irish “go to America not as foreigners, we know it already, because America is the Rome of our world… it is our culture too.” He goes on to say, “If I had to understand myself as an American, it would be dishonest and wrong not to predicate the whole history of America upon this violence against Native Americans.” He feels that he pulls the curtain back on the epic romance of the American West to reveal the brutal injustices committed in the business of empire making.

This book, in which Thomas and John are lovers, was inspired by and dedicated to Barry’s son, who came out as gay recently and on whose behalf Barry advocated for LGBT marriage rights during the Irish marriage referendum that passed in 2015. He says of his approach to writing the American West from the perspective of two young gay men: “It’s as if I’ve shooed all the John Ford actors out of the way and recast it.”

Sebastian Barry has received numerous Irish literary awards and is shortlisted for two others (and deservedly so) for DAYS WITHOUT END.

Reviewed by Roz Shea on January 27, 2017

Days Without End
by Sebastian Barry

  • Publication Date: September 12, 2017
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books
  • ISBN-10: 014311140X
  • ISBN-13: 9780143111405