Hearts Marching To The Beat Of Different Drums……. Days Without End by Sebastian Barry

Apr 17, 2017British and Irish Fiction1 comment

‘The immigrant’s heart marches to the beat of two quite different drums, one from the old homeland and the other from the new. The immigrant has to bridge these two worlds, living comfortably in the new and bringing the best of his or her ancient identity and heritage to bear on life in an adopted homeland.” – Irish President Mary McAleese

In the 1870s it was estimated that a third of all the money in the Irish economy came from money sent by kindhearted Irish servant girls to their families. The Emigrant Industrial Savings Bank in New York alone would send more than $30 million to Ireland between 1850 and 1880. Many families in Ireland owed their survival to what they gratefully called the “American Letter,” a lifeline that helped them cope with brutal poverty and lack of opportunity in Ireland.

In Sebastian Barry’s latest novel ‘Days Without End’ we follow the life of Thomas McNulty, writing a very different sort of ‘American Letter’ as he slips almost silently from the fire of the 1850’s desperate Irish poverty into the frying pan of a troubled 1850’s America,  a country trying to find itself. While this might be an America of opportunity, it’s in many ways no less harsh and no less brutal than the starved Ireland that Thomas has left behind, for this is an America heading for the clash of two very different versions of what that ‘American Dream’ will be and which will end in Civil War. It’s a novel that is by turns gentle and then horrific and shocking. But throughout, it is blessed with a tenderness and humanity amidst those horrors – the end result is a book that’s brave, at times gut-wrenching, and utterly, utterly, brilliant.

Like our Irish cousins, we Scots know quite a bit about the ‘Dance Called America’ and the lure that the country had (and still has) for generations of the impoverished and desperate working class folk, who crossed the Atlantic in search of that most noble but vaguest of ideas – ‘a chance’. My own mum left a poverty-stricken post-war Glasgow about 100 years after Thomas McNulty left Ireland -what they had in common was a search for ‘something better’ – but it is there the similarities abruptly end between what my Mum might have found in 1950’s America compared to what Thomas finds and lives through in 1850. Thomas McNulty leaves an Irish famine which has left him as the sole survivor in his family and it’s that survival instinct that carries Thomas through the novel.

'I am talking now about the finale of my first engagement in the business of war.

1851 it was most likely. Since the bloom was gone off me, I had volunteered aged 17 in Missouri. If you had all your limbs they took you. If you were a one-eyed boy they might take you too even so. The only pay worse than the worst pay in America was army pay. And they fed you queer stuff till your shit just stank. But you were glad to get work because if you didn’t work for the few dollars in America you hungered, I had learned that lesson. Well, I was sick of hungering.’

From Days Without End

Landing up in Missouri Thomas is still a boy, still desperate and still starving when he meets another boy as they shelter in a hedge – John Cole – and what they lack in money, food, belongings and shelter is partly compensated for by the fact that they also share wits, desperation and physical good looks. They persuade a local saloon owner to use them as the female presence in a town full of lonely miners and so they are to some extent saved from starvation by their willingness to don petticoats, wigs and rouge and by the miners longing for female company of whatever kind they can get.

But when their youthful looks begin to shift from androgynous beauty to a more masculine kind of beauty at 17, their days as female companions are over and so they join the Army. And as they had previously discovered an ability to survive in the part of women, both Thomas and John Cole find themselves gifted with the ability to survive in the part of soldiers, getting through the resettlement of Indian Wars on the trail to California, and then through the American Civil War.

‘Sebastian Barry’s latest work is a masterpiece of atmosphere and language….. a novel never to be forgotten’

Linda's Book Bag

‘I don’t drink as a rule…..but for this book, in the evening I was so excited by it, almost disgracefully excited by doing it, that I just needed to calm down a bit. So I thought maybe a really good red wine will do that. And even then after I’d had two or three glasses of wine, I’d go back to my work room and magically there’d be another few sentences there just to do, that Thomas would say and I’d write them down – I should be able to identify them shouldn’t I as dreadful sentences, the work of a drunkard, but I can’t. It was as if Thomas was entirely sober and he was intent on telling me about the high days of his life, his days without end.’

Sebastian Barry talking about writing Days Without End February 2017

Throughout the book there’s such a contrast in the characters of Thomas and John Cole – and that contrariness of personality traits is at the core of every other character in the book. Thomas and John can display a ruthlessness and violent determination to live through a battle by day and display the most tender and loyal love for one another when they bed down side by side for the night. The brutality is set out by Sebastian Barry with raw force and yet the language is beautiful and powerful – these are images that you might not want to have conjured for you as the reader, but my god they are mesmerising and simply impossible to shy away from. And they are balanced by scenes of real tenderness and then balanced further by scenes of what’s effectively everyday life and domesticity in mid-19th Century America. Above all, when that raw force and beautiful prose is turned on relationships, and on love, it’s just magnificent to read.

This is in some ways quite an unusual story but only in the sense that the narrative itself is quite out of the ordinary. Before I’d read this I’d had no idea about things like young men cross-dressing to provide female company for lonely miners, no idea about how the US Army at that time was effectively staffed by a collection of immigrants and how men in those days might have lived together let alone set up an unconventional family as Thomas does. I listened to Sebastian Barry talking about how he came to write this book in a Guardian Books podcast and he described those early passages of Thomas and John Cole, dressed as females to entertain men as ‘supplying to a great want….. it’s performative…… it’s theatre’.

Tom, John and Winona survive battlefields and atrocities, trek across America’s great plains into the agonised, villainous aftermath of the war between the states. Barry makes us understand how.

The Daily Telegraph February 2017

Days Without End is not only a story of survival, it is a love story, too, written in a gorgeous style that blends Barry’s characteristic eloquence with the straight-talk of early America. As such it sets itself firmly in the tradition of Irish diaspora writing'

Financial Times November 2016

Barry has found a beautifully natural voice for his narrator, capable of a wide and always credible register of speech. One of the many remarkable and admirable things about this novel is that, though it is indeed packed with action and rich in dramatic scenes, it nevertheless has a leisurely feel.

The Scotsman October 2016

This is one of those books that seem to work on every level. Thomas’s life is a fascinating story in itself, and through it are woven stories which say much about this period of American history – the Indian Wars and the hypocrisy of the US Government in their efforts to reach agreement and compromises with the Indian tribes, the process of enlisting and then fighting during the American Civil War, the blood and gore of battle, the notorious Confederate Prisoner of War Camp at Andersonville, and the aftermath of the Civil Wars in a fractured nation, rife with division and cruelty.

But what stands out over all of these is the love story at the heart of the book, initially as the friendship between Thomas and John Cole grows to love and then as it is fulfilled further in their semi-adoption of an Indian girl from a Sioux encampment. And it’s the love story that ensures this narrative sweeps and soars over the blood, gore, tragedy and brutality of the times in which they live.

The story of Thomas and John Cole is very, very special and it’s told by a writer who seems to be an absolute master of his craft. To say more of the story would in part run the risk of straying into spoilers – and nothing I could write could even come close to doing justice to how fabulous this book is. But by the end it was a book that gripped me in every sense of the word – I read the last chapters barely able to catch my breath and the last few pages reduced me to tears and even sobs! I can’t recommend this book highly enough….. Days Without End is a brilliant book and a wonderful read.

Book Rating 10/10

Days Without End by Sebastian Barry is published by Faber and Faber.

The book won the Costa Prize for 2016. In winning, Sebastian Barry became the first two-time winner of the Costa Prize, having won in 2008 for the just-as-brilliant ‘The Secret Scripture.

If you are interested in reading a little more about Sebastian Barry there’s a decent biography of him at the British Council Literature site and there’s the transcript of an interview he gave to Aerodrome on-line magazine a couple of years ago.

And if you have the time and inclination, a couple of the quotes I’ve listed above are taken from an interview he did for a Guardian Books Podcast, just before he was announced as the overall winner of the Costa Prize earlier this year


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