Review | Days Without End by Sebastian Barry

Continuing Barry’s tales of the McNulty family, Days Without End is a historical novel that encapsulates themes of love, war, violence, hope, family and identity. After it’s Costa Book of the Year 2017 win, I had high expectations, especially with the plethora of positive reviews from readers (an award-winning novel isn’t always a big hit with the crowds).

I was excited to pick this up because of those reviews, but also a little wary. What if I didn’t like it? There’s always that trepidation when going into a highly-acclaimed novel when you’re a bit of a bibliophile.

I needn’t have worried …

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A story told by Thomas McNulty, Days Without End explores his life from his youth when he meets ‘Handsome’ John Cole in a bush by the side of the road through their time serving in the Indian Wars and the American Civil War to its aftermath.

He recounts the joyful moments of working the stage in a mining town when they were just boys; he remembers their time signing up and working as soldiers to keep the peace in remote townships in a growing America – sometimes peaceful, sometimes brutal and filled with experiences and moments that shaped him and John Cole.

Then, through strange tragedy and circumstance, they find themselves caring for a young Native American girl Thomas names Winona. As the one war seemingly gives way to another, Thomas and John Cole have to navigate the building of their new family with the building of their new country – all wrought through bloodshed and love.

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I knew within the first few pages that I absolutely adored this book. Just a handful of paragraphs had me hooked into a voice that rang so perfectly true it was as if Thomas was sat right next to me telling me his story. I wasn’t expecting to have such a strong reaction after so short a time. Barry uses natural speech patterns and a genuine representation of the character’s language to give life to Thomas and his experiences. I may go on about this for a while, but I just found it stunning.

The way he always says ‘John Cole’, not John. The way the tenses change and shift from past to present as they do in conversation: ‘He says to me…’ Even the mispronunciation of some words, or just the pure, isolated dialect of region and time.

And the story itself is a simple one; there are no great plot twists or dramatic reveals. It is simply one soldier telling how he became a soldier, what it was like to be a soldier, and how you try to recover from being a soldier. With this in mind there are, of course, a lot of details of battles and skirmishes that are violent and visceral. Hearing it from Thomas’ perspective gives it both an immersive and a detached sense – you are shown what happens but it is with the voice of one who has been a part of bloodshed and doesn’t fully comprehend it.

The building of family is beautifully done in this book. Barry has said openly that he wrote Days Without End for his son Toby, who is gay. Barry presents Thomas and John Cole’s relationship with care and great consideration, but also simplicity. There is no great epic in their relationship – no ‘coming out’, no revelations, no confusion. They’re two men who met, bonded, fell in love and made themselves a family with the sweet Winona as their daughter. Nothing more and nothing less and it is this poignancy, this delicacy that holds the novel together. It is not the great action, the morality of war, the building of a nation: it is the spaces in between, the lives that exist in those quiet moments that we have within our lives.

This was one of those fortunate books that made me desperate to read on and devastated to finish. The last chapters deliver real tension that kept my heart in my throat until the very last. And as soon as the final page was turned, I wanted to return to the beginning again.

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Have you read it yet? Are you going to? What was the last book you read that instantly made you want to go back to the beginning and read it again? Let me know in the comments.

 

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