Days Without End by Sebastian Barry

War and love in old America…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

Our narrator, Thomas McNulty, is a young Irish immigrant alone in 1850s America when he meets John Cole, another boy who is destined to be his friend, companion and lover throughout his life. This is the story of their lives and, through them, the story of this period of American history. The boys work for a time as “girls” in a saloon, where they are paid to dance with lonely miners, but when they become too old to be convincing, they go off to join the army. Soon they are involved in the on-going conflicts with the Native Americans and later will be sucked into the Civil War.

When I finished reading this book, I had rather mixed feelings about it – the writing is often wonderful and Barry undoubtedly brings the army scenes to vivid and gory life. But truthfully, my eyebrows rose when the boys dressed up as girls and all the miners treated them as courteously as if they were really girls (not that I imagine they would have treated real saloon girls particularly courteously anyway); and continued to rise throughout all the gender identity stuff with which the book is liberally packed – yes, pun very much intended. I had no idea the early Americans were so politically correct as to accept transvestitism and transsexuality with barely a disapproving comment – how terribly inclusive they were back in those days! It’s suggested more than once that in fact all these rough, tough settlers were secretly enthralled by the idea of men appearing on stage dressed as women, finding them more sexually alluring and exciting than actual women. Hmm! Maybe it really was like that – how would I know? – but I found it pretty unconvincing, regardless of the skill in the story-telling.

What I found much more convincing were the soldiering aspects. The narrator, Thomas McNulty, is an uneducated man, though not unintelligent, and is entirely uninterested in politics, so that we get his view of events from a purely human angle, with no overt polemics. Clearly, Barry himself takes the modern view that what the settlers did to the Native Americans was a horrific atrocity, but he does an excellent job of showing how it may have been viewed differently by those involved; especially those who, like Thomas and John Cole, were at the bottom of the pile in terms of power – only obeying orders, as has been the excuse used for war-crimes for all the long centuries of history. At the time of this story, the struggle between the races has been going on for many years, so that it’s easy for the participants not to look for original causes – instead, each side has suffered tragedies that become excuses for revenge. Barry shows the horrors of battle and massacres in all their cruel and bloody detail and the power of his language makes these passages vivid and often deeply moving. Unfortunately there are so many of these incidents, though, that in the end I found them becoming repetitive and as a result the power diminished as the book progressed.

The sergeant whispers his order like the word of a lover and Hubert Longfield pulls on his string and the gun roars. It is the roar of one hundred lions in a small room. We would gladly put our hands over our ears but our muskets are raised and trained along the line of the wigwams. We are watching for the rat-run of the survivors. There is a stretch of time as long as creation and I can hear the whizzing of the shell, a spinning piercing sound, and then it makes its familiar thud-thud and pulls at the belly of heaven and spreads its mayhem around it, the sides of wigwams torn off like faces, the violent wind of the blast toppling others flat, revealing people in various poses of surprise and horror. There is murder and death immediately. There are maybe thirty tents and just this one shell has made a black burning cancer in the middle.

Barry also does a good job of showing how ordinary soldiers get drawn into wars they don’t necessarily understand nor feel strongly about. Thomas and John Cole end up on the Unionist side during the Civil War, but only because that’s where their commanding officers lead them. There is a feeling that they don’t really know what they’re fighting for and would as easily have fought as rebels had they happened to be in one of the Confederate regiments when the war started. As a political animal, I was rather disappointed that there wasn’t more about the causes of the Civil War but that, I believe, was an intentional decision and worked well in the context of the book.

Sebastian Barry accepting the 2016 Costa Novel Award. It was also longlisted for the 2017 Booker but didn’t make the shortlist.

Not content with dragging current liberal fixations with gender identity into it, Barry also has a shot at making some points about race – specifically, about the position of Native Americans in this new world. Though I found this aspect more credible, I didn’t feel he handled it particularly deftly or in any great depth – it felt to me rather tacked on as though he felt it ought to be there rather than being something he felt strongly about. The main Native American character, Winona, never came to life for me – she seems to be merely a foil about whom a few “points” could be made, and a hook on which to hang the loose plot.

In fact, the characterisation in general didn’t do much for me. At a late stage, Thomas says of John Cole “I never think bad of John, just can’t. I don’t even know his nature. He a perpetual stranger and I delight in that.” [sic] I too felt I still didn’t know his nature, but my delight in that fact was somewhat less profound.

So, given all my criticisms, it’s fair to wonder why I’m still giving the book 3½ stars. Firstly, the prose is mostly excellent, often beautiful, frequently moving, and I’m always more willing to forgive a good deal of other weaknesses if the writing thrills me. Secondly, I half read, half listened to this book, and the narration by Aidan Kelly is quite wonderful. The book is written in what is clearly supposed to be an uneducated Irish voice, with lots of grammatical and punctuation quirks, and can actually feel quite like hard work sometimes on the written page. But Kelly shows how, when read aloud, it sounds absolutely natural, as if an Irishman were indeed verbally telling the tale. Kelly brings out all the beauty in the prose, and the contrasts in humour, horror, sorrow and love within the story. It’s a remarkable performance, and I found myself actually preferring to listen than to read, sometimes going back to listen to a passage I had read to see how Kelly interpreted it.

Overall, therefore, despite finding it quite deeply flawed in terms of credibility and characterisation, my experience of reading/listening to it was an enjoyable one, and so in the end I would recommend it.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Faber & Faber Ltd.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link
Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

67 thoughts on “Days Without End by Sebastian Barry

  1. Hmm….it does sound a bit ‘up and down,’ FictionFan. I think I would find those long passages about battle a bit much. And for me, historical novels really must be credible. I’m not sure this one is. Hmmm….I’m glad you found things to enjoy here, but I’m very much on the fence about this one. But not about your excellent review, for which thanks.

    • The battle scenes were difficult to take, although I felt they were probably realistic and they didn’t feel gratuitous – at least, not in terms of the descriptions, though I felt the book could have done with fewer of them. But credibility was a big issue for me – again, the transgender story was well written but it felt as if he was handling it in too modern a fashion for the time and place the book was set in. I’ll certainly read more of his stuff though – the quality of his prose is undoubted.

  2. Sounds like an interesting book. Not sure that the flagrant cross-dressing would have gone down quite so well at that time, but what a nice thought that it might have done. I don’t think I will be rushing to read this one, but rather perversely I’d like to see it made into a film and see how it goes down with a cinematic audience!

    • Actually the whole transgender stuff was handled well except for it being set in a time and place when I didn’t believe there would be so much acceptance of it. It was as if people though it was normal – hmm, bad word choice… not unusual. I’m so fed up with the whole gender identity fixation – the entire world of art and literature seems to think it’s the only issue in the world worth addressing at the moment… *looks up to see if any nukes are falling* Welcome back! You’ve been missed! 😀

      • I know what you mean, it’s like a fixation! Mind you, it was child abuse a few years back and no doubt it will be something else before long. A little variety would be nice, though! Cheerful variety, at that.
        It’s a delight to be back! I didn’t get quite as much work done as I should have, but I did get up to some other things. There will be a post on Wednesday 😉

        • Ha! Indeed – and this is marginally better than child abuse! It would be good if they could all have a little conference at the beginning of the year, put lots of subjects in a hat, and each draw one. I long for the days when “diversity” didn’t mean we all have to fixate on the same thing… (I’m currently reading a Christie where everyone keeps referring to Miss Marple as an ‘old pussy’ and am struggling with the change in definition of that word too… 😉 )

          Hurrah! I shall look forward to it with a mixture of anticipation and trepidation…

  3. Haha, I could make all kinds of snarky comments about political correctness at this point, but I’ll refrain. I’ll make sure to sample the audio version; I would probably like that better than a written versions.

    • Haha – I’m glad it’s not just me! “Diversity” seems to mean we can only talk about the same one or two subjects over and over again. Very odd! And in this case I just found his handling of it didn’t feel convincing for the time or place the book is set in. The narration really is excellent though – kept me going even when I was harrumphing at the storyline… 😉

  4. I’m reading this at the moment and feeling a bit held at arms length by it and not quite sure why. I’m not sure I like first person narratives because I end up craving other angles or points of view on what’s going on. However when it comes to my own writing I love the energy of first person so there we are!

    • I’m not an enthusiast for first person in general, unless it’s intentionally done because the inner life of the major character is the main point. In this one, I felt Thomas describes events well, but I never really got sucked in to his emotions – I don’t want melodramtic angsting all over the place, but somehow he seemed too – unaffected, perhaps – by the things he went through. Of course, I hate present tense, so that was another major drawback for me. Since he was telling the story of his life from the perspective of being old and looking back, would he really have told it all in present tense? I think not! 😉

  5. I like Barry, and have had this sitting on my shelf for far too long, unread. In part this is because when a subject seems to be this in subject for the week, and everyone’s book is about it, I get a bit disinclined.

    • This was my first and, despite my criticisms, I loved the prose enough to ensure I’ll read others. Is there one you would recommend? Yes, indeed, any subject can pall when it’s grossly overused. This is my fourth major new literary book in a row – two of which I’ve abandoned – that’s about transgenderism. Clearly a memo has gone round making it the compulsory subject for the year. In this one, though, it was the fact that the reaction of others didn’t feel right for the time or place…

  6. I liked this a great deal more than you did and had absolutely no problems with the scenes where the two young men are dressed as women. From other things I’ve read I think this was probably very well researched. However, as we’ve all said many times before, it’s a good job we don’t all like the same things or we would never have anything to discuss.

    • Ha! Yes, I always have this great fear that one day someone will write a novel that everyone agrees is “perfect”, and as a result literature will die. 😉 I actually thought he handled the transgender issues well, in terms of Thomas’ inner thoughts and actions. But I just didn’t find the reactions of those around them at all convincing for the time or place.

  7. Not tempted by this one, outstanding prose or not. It’s not because of your review, FF, which as usual is excellent; it’s more the subject matter. Just not something that immediately grabs my attention … or promises to hold it. Win some, lose some!

  8. Hmm… I’ve had this on my wishlist for a while and I’m not so sure that it will make it to the reading pile – I’m rather surprised about the transgender issues being put (shoe-horned) into a book where the chance of this happening at that time has surely to be remote? As much as I love fine prose, I’m not sure that I can get by on the realities of young men being drawn into a war they don’t believe in is going to be enough for me to keep reading this one. Thanks for a fine review as always.

    • It’s the fourth lit-fic book in a row I’ve read that focuses on transgender stuff – it’s definitely this year’s compulsory subject! But with the time and setting of this, it didn’t ring true that people would have been so accepting. People who’ve read other books by him seem to feel this isn’t his best, so I’ll try something else from him at some point and see if that works better…

  9. Hmm I’m with you in finding it difficult to believe that men dressed as women would be treated so kindly and with respect. Especially because modern day American (sadly) doesn’t even reflect this! Didn’t trump just disallow trans people to join the army or some such nonsense?

  10. Barry’s writing is always beautiful and I usually love his books, but I wasn’t really a fan of this one. I completely agree with you about the gender identity aspects, which didn’t feel convincing to me either considering the time period, but my biggest problem was that the setting just didn’t appeal. If you want to give him another try, my favourites are The Secret Scripture and On Canaan’s Side. 🙂

    • I’m glad it’s not just me, Helen. I was interested in the frontier/army setting, but I didn’t find it as insightful as I’d hoped – he seemed to be describing events rather than looking into causes, if that makes sense. But I thought his writing was excellent so will definitely try another. Two recommendations for On Canaan’s Side now, so it’s taken the lead… thanks! 😀

    • Me too! When they get it right, I love lit-fic, but more and more now they seem to be trying to address the subject of the day, without making sure they’ve found a good and believable story to do it in…

  11. I was just talking about this book with someone and they had similar comments re: great writing, iffy on other things. They also mentioned there was a twist partway through that turned them off. I wanted to read some of the Booker nominees but I think I may pass on this one. Thanks for the review!

    • I’m glad it’s not just me. The writing is great, but the story just didn’t seem to fit the time and place he’d decided to set it in. If he’d concentrated on the soldiering it would have been a better book in my opinion, or done the transgender story but given a more credible picture of the difficulties they’d surely have faced… it’s not exactly easy even now!

  12. Oh dear, I was just sitting down to read this one, but now I ‘m wondering if I’ll like it. I know that men on the frontier danced together for lack of women, but like you, I’d be very surprised if dressing up like women was acceptable.

  13. I enjoyed your review of what honestly sounds like a strange book. This isn’t for me although I know it won awards. Glad the audio worked for you, I really think a good narrator can change the experience of a story!

    • Thank you! It is a strange one – the storyline just didn’t seem to fit the time and place, or at least the characters didn’t behave the way I’d have expected people of that period to behave. I’m finding more and more that I enjoy doing a part read/part listen – a really good narrator can bring out things I don’t notice on the page…

  14. I have this book and just haven’t gotten to it yet. Sebastian Barry is a favorite of mine so I really don’t know why I’ve put this one off as long as I have. Maybe it’s because I’ve read quite a few reviews like yours that indicate his latest work is not quite up to his usual standards. Don’t give up on him. His other books are wonderful, particularly “Annie Dunne” and “On Canaan’s Side”. I will try to get to this one soon as I’ve left it lingering on my book shelf far too long for this author – must give it a chance! Great review!

    • This was my first and I liked his actual writing very much, so I’m glad I didn’t dislike this one so much that it’s put me off trying him again. I hope you enjoy it when you get to it – despite all my criticisms, there’s a lot in it to appreciate, especially the stuff about the wars with the Sioux. Thanks for the recommendations – two people have recommended On Canaan’s Side now, so it’s leapt into the lead… I shall investigate! 😀

    • Thanks, L. Marie! Yes, I feel if you’re going to address these subjects you have to try to do it realistically or what’s the point? But I’ll try another of his books sometime and see if it suits me better – his actual writing is excellent. 🙂

  15. Well, you’ve made me a feel a bit better about not having time to read this book right now. I have it from the library, but feel sure I won’t get to it before it’s due back. I will likely come back to it… but others feel more urgent right now!

    • I must admit I wish I’d started with a different book of his – though his writing is so good, this hasn’t really put me off him. The good outweighed the lack of credibility overall, so it’s definitely worth reading sometime, but it’s not one I’ll really be pushing on people.

  16. Do you get your books and the audio both from a publisher, or are you finding them on your own? I’ve found that at my own library, it the book is in one form and not massively popular, it’s unlikely to be in any other medium.

    I’m surprised the author didn’t add a forward or end note about his choice to include gender swaps/trans characters in his novel. Even today, trans people are humiliated and murdered, especially Black trans women, so I’m wondering why it would have been looked at kindly during the Civil War and then became unacceptable later.

    • When I do these joint things, I usually get the book from the publisher or NetGalley and then ‘buy’ the audiobook from Audible. I put ‘buy’ in quotes because I’ve been lucky enough to be given lots of free credits from Audible to pick books of my own choice to review, and it’s those credits I’ve been using for most of my recent joint reads.

      That was what baffled me – I don’t know of any period in modern history where our western societies were accepting of gender bending, homosexuality etc etc, and somehow early American frontier towns seem like a highly unlikely place to be full of forward-thinking liberals! Maybe I’m wrong, but I’d need to be more convinced than I was by this…

  17. I’ve been very ambivalent about reading this book. Your review has simply added to that feeling!!
    I’m a little over modern stories reinventing how people actually would have behaved or thought throughout history.

    Thanks for such a thoughtful, honest review.

    • Thanks, Brona! Yes, I really go to fiction, and especially historical fiction, to tell me something about society, so if the writer decides to change it too drastically then I’m left wondering – what’s the point? However, the stuff about the army and the Indian wars felt much more authentic, and the writing is excellent…

    • It’s not often I prefer the audio to the written word, so I think that’s a good indication of how good the narrator was. He really showed how the sometimes rather messy sentence structure is actually a good representation of verbal language…

  18. That’s too bad it fell flat. I do get you about listening though. I just started listening to Central Station, but I actually got intrigued and I’m going to have to go back and properly read it now (sigh…) because some things just have to be experienced visually. It’s just not working out, the listening – not for a book like that. Oh, and yeah! That bit about cross-dressing? I wouldn’t have been convinced either! Good review.

    • It depends so much on the narrator. Usually I prefer to listen to books I already know so that if I lose concentration for a few minutes it’s not a major problem. But every now and then a narrator is so good it adds something to the written word, and that’s what I felt happened with this one. But even the narrator couldn’t convince me people would have been so accepting of the transgender stuff back then…

  19. Fantastic review as always! I’m so intrigued by this one and have heard mixed things – looking forward to seeing what I make of it very soon. Glad you enjoyed the prose though, sounds gorgeous.

    • Thanks, Beth! The prose is very well done even though it doesn’t always make for the easiest reading. Hope you enjoy it – loads of people loved it more than me… 🙂

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