Review: Days Without End by Sebastian Barry
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Edit February 1st: Congratulations to Sebastian Barry on winning the Costa overall Book of the Year Award for Days Without End. Barry previously won the prize in 2008 for The Secret Scripture. No other author has won the Book of the Year award twice.
Way back in the summer of 1990 when the movie Pretty Woman was released, magazines and Sunday papers buzzed with news of an exciting new actress and, more than anything else, her hair. Her hair! Oh my God, her hair! For the most part, the raving reviews neglected to mention that the heroine was a prostitute.
A similar frisson surrounds Sebastian Barry’s latest novel, Days Without End. Bookish social media sites are raving about the language. The language, they buzz, is extraordinary, exciting, unique...but that doesn’t tell you a whole lot about the book.
My sister died and my mother, on the stone floor of our house in Sligo town.
When Thomas McNulty watches his family expire from hunger during the Irish potato famine, he realises there is no recourse but to board a coffin ship bound for North America.
I was thirteen or so and I knew in my heart and soul I had to flee.
Sheltering from a downpour, under a sodden ditch in Missouri, McNulty meets Handsome John Cole.
First moment I saw him I thought, there’s a pal. That’s what it was.
The feeling, it seems, was mutual. John Cole, just a couple of years older than McNulty, sets the tone of their relationship with immediate openness and honesty. The first thing he tells McNulty about himself is that his "great-grandma was an Indian whose people were run out of the east long since, as if to get the worst news over with."
McNulty replies with nonjudgemental acceptance:
Well. I told him how to look at that. Me, the child of Sligonians blighted likewise. No, us McNultys didn’t got much to crow about.
Cole and McNulty, "two wood-shavings of humanity in a rough world," take to the road together and stick together to the bitter end. That’s the truly extraordinary and exciting thing about Days Without End. This is the story of two homeless, motherless boys who fall in love and devote their lives to each other. Days Without End is a book with the power to open your eyes to what a real love story should be.
Two is better together, he said.
While they are still young and pretty enough, the boys make a living by dressing up as girls and dancing for the amusement of hardened miners but time brings a natural end to that line of business.
The bottom was always falling out of something in America as far as I could see.
Cole and McNulty do the thing that comes naturally to boys – they sign up to the army and travel west to "fight injuns."
Sebastian Barry’s commitment to the character and voice of Thomas McNulty never falters. Any dialogue is absorbed into McNulty’s narrative. There is never any sense of an omniscient author hiding in the wings. McNulty has centre stage and holds his audience in thrall. He is a practised story-teller, having a history in theatre after all, and sets an easy pace to begin with.
We were out there, on the longer grass then, nearer the mountains, just passing along.
He takes the reader along, on his journey back in time, swaying gently, sentences slipping along in rhythm with his horse.
Just clipping along with a tack-tack-tack on the dry earth.
But, before too long, WHAM. I wasn’t sauntering gently anymore. I was doubled over instead, galloping, with my book in my lap and my hands raised to my temples wanting, but unable, to cover my eyes and what choked my throat was love. That last is McNulty’s line, of course, not mine: "what chokes my throat is love." But I too was overwhelmed with love, for John McNulty and his unwavering loyalty to Handsome John Cole.
Yes, Sebastian Barry’s language lives up to expectation in much the same way as did Julia Roberts’ hair. It is wild, imperfect, natural and colourful. You’ve never seen anything quite like it. Days Without End is the sort of lyrical masterpiece story-tellers long ago might have learned off by heart to recite at gatherings; The Ballad of John McNulty.
Set against a backdrop of genocide, rape and pillage, Days Without End is, above all, a tale of enduring love. This book holds a secret, a key to holding on to those "days when you were young and your lover was young and you couldn’t imagine them any other way."
Try as I might to find the perfect quotation, something you could tattoo to your inner arm or pin to your vest, I couldn’t find that secret in the words of Thomas McNulty. It’s in the feelings. Days Without End pulsates. It has a heart.
Somehow, it hurts us into understanding.
You have to feel it for yourself.
Read this book. Beg, borrow or steal it. Or, buy it here.