Book Review – Days Without End – Sebastian Barry
Book: Days Without End
Author: Sebastian Barry
Year of Release: 2016
Read 259-page hardcover edition in March 2017.
Thomas McNulty is a teenager from Ireland when he is forced to escape across the ocean to America, due to famine. He searches for a better life, and finds himself involved in the Indian Wars and the American Civil War. Enlisting in the army gives him some purpose and a means to survive, however he must also cope with the notion of killing other young men, and deal with the racism others around him feel towards Indigenous Americans and African Americans.
At the same time, he befriends a unique individual with Indian blood named John Cole, and the two form a very close and special relationship, that evolves into mutual love as they both go through war together, and as they adopt a young Indigenous girl who had been orphaned during the Indian Wars. His atypical family allows Thomas to explore his internal identity, and get in touch with his emotions, all the while war and violence rages in the country around him.
This is a fantastic read, written by the Irish novelist Sebastian Barry, who has clearly done research for this book, but has also derived inspiration for the novel from his son who came out to him as gay several years before.
Barry does a great job narrating this in the voice of Tom McNulty, and the language and writing really is in the voice of a soldier from the 19th century, telling us his story
Barry has managed to create a novel which has intimacy, emotion, and closeness, within a very unusual family structure for the day. We get a real sense of Thomas McNulty’s feelings and even his own exploration of his identity as a cross dresser. It is fascinating to watch him (and John Cole) explore their relationship, as cross dressing entertainers, but with Thomas going the extra step of wearing his dresses in their shared home and calling himself Thomasina. The same-sex relationship that Thomas and John have, and the gender identity explorations that occur, are enjoyable and interesting to read about, particularly in the context of the time period.
Contrasting these emotional and thoughtful scenes of family and love, Barry also has brutal scenes of violence and racism. Thomas and John are not immune from this, and are involved in the slaughter of huge numbers of Indigenous peoples, many of which are unarmed women and children. Thomas comments more than once that this carnage seems pointless and confusing, but he follows orders, as all the young soldiers do. But is this right? Are they guilty of serious crimes, and what does this mean for them when they go home after the war? Why do they keep going, keep pushing on, listening to orders from senior officers to wipe out the Indians? These questions that the author brings to the forefront, all the while the violence continues, are excellent things to think about. Barry is successful at showcasing the violence of these wars in American history, and the implications to the Indigenous populations.
He also takes the opportunity to showcase the racism and horrific treatment towards African Americans, as his main characters then have to go through fighting in the Civil War. Barry looks at the north versus south philosophies through the eyes of common soldiers, keeping the viewpoints focused on bloody battles occurring at the front lines. This is a good approach, as it makes the reader realize how awful these historical truths are, and makes the reader wonder why they happened.
At times the novel does seem to get a little bit off topic from the real focus of examining the purpose of war, violence, and contrasting that mess with the love and admiration of Thomas and John for each other. However, for the most part the novel stays true to this laser focus, and when it is focused in this area, it succeeds.
Clearly Barry has succeeded in creating a novel that not only has a lot of violence and war in them, but creating a unique novel, where the manic characters have a queer identity, even if being gay or trans was not a possible label in this day and age. Seeing the unique family structure these characters put together, and seeing how they perceive what goes on around them, allows this novel to explore topics with a fresh perspective.
Overall: 4 stars out of 5 stars