Sebastian Barry has already been one of this year’s big literary prizewinners with the Costa Novel and Book Of The Year Awards for this. I very much liked the story-line and it is impressively written, is selling well and will give the Man Booker judges much food for thought.
Beginning in the mid nineteenth century Irish emigrant Thomas McNulty, aged around 15, meets the younger John Cole, a boy with Native American heritage. With tough experiences in their young pasts, poor and road-weary with “the same look of the arse out of his trousers that I had too” the pair strike up a friendship in the difficult adult male environment of Missouri; “We were two woodshavings of humanity in a rough world.” The boys become female impersonators entertaining miners in a saloon in Daggsville where women are in short supply before enlisting in the military. Initially hunting down Native Americans they later become caught up in the Civil War.
Written as a present tense account (which is something I’ve grumbled about in the past) this is McNulty’s tale of a relationship which blossoms into love in the most unlikely of circumstances. This love is at the heart of the book and is portrayed positively and despite these unlikely circumstances, plausibly. There is a touch of the “Brokebank Mountains” here but the love is underplayed and feels more real as a result. Mostly, however, this is an adventure tale of battlegrounds, survival and injustices meted out towards the non-white populations of the developing America.
It’s a personal taste thing but I preferred the sections of the book away from the battlefield with the boys in the business of “entertaining” and functioning as a family with their adopted daughter. In the army sections I found, yet again, that the present tense narrative style put it a little all on one level, and I wearied at times. I am niggling a little because I did very much enjoy it and the novel is certainly shortlist worthy but I’m not sure that I would be pushing this big literary prizewinner to scoop the actual award.
Irish novelist Sebastian Barry has won the Costa Book Of The Year on two occasions (also “Secret Scripture” in 2008) and has been twice shortlisted for the Man Booker. “Days Without End” is his ninth novel, could this be the one to “do the double”?
Days Without End was published in paperback by Faber & Faber in February 2017. The hardback edition was first published in October 2016.