Days Without End, Booker-Prize shortlisted author Sebastian Barry’s latest novel, is a surprising one. Set in America during the 1800s, the novel takes place during the Indian Wars and later, the Civil War. The story is told by Irish immigrant Thomas McNulty, through first person perspective, as he looks back on his army days and his time with brother-in-arms John Cole.
On the surface, it sounds like any other story of soldiers and war but this novel is something special. Barry’s use of language is lyrical and the reader is immediately drawn into Thomas McNulty’s confidence as his voice clearly emerges from the pages. Through his poetic descriptions we witness the horrors and occasional beauty he encounters whilst at the whim of the American government and the Army commanders.
Although the novel takes place during such an important part of American history, the politics of the situation are not dwelt upon by Thomas, who as someone on the front line but far removed from the upper echelons of society, can only document how politics affected those at the bottom. Thomas observes life’s inequalities and hardships but doesn’t spend much time scrutinising the causes; Barry instead chooses to highlight these elements through Thomas’ poetic descriptions and lets the reader consider the part these people played in the historical moments. He touches upon class, racism and the American Dream but at the centre of this novel there is also a focus on migration and the idea of belonging.
Thomas and John Cole’s friendship develops at a young age as they both find themselves alone in the world and needing to make a living. This they do through the help of Mr Noone, a dubiously named but kind-hearted bar-owner who employs the young boys to dress up as girls to dance with the local miners. It’s an act that echoes for the rest of Thomas’ days as he forms the realisation that despite spending a large part of his life in an army uniform, he prefers life wearing a dress. This realisation is not overly-scrutinised or worried over but rather calmly observed by Thomas in a way that is a characteristic of his narrative voice. Similarly, his relationship with John is slowly revealed to be something more than just friendship and his love and devotion to his partner is never agonised over but simply played out as something beautiful and tender amidst the horrors of war.
This novel is a beautiful achievement for Barry and one that captures an important part of recent history in a surprising way. The focus on migration for the hope of a better life, or simply to leave something awful behind, is something that clearly has echoes today and reminds us that history has a habit of repeating itself.