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Days Without End

Sebastian Barry

Premise: Thomas McNulty, a young seventeen year old flees the Irish famine of the 1840s and journeys across America with his new found friend, John Cole. Together they sign up to fight in the army in the Indian Wars and later in the Civil War. Revelling in their adventures, they cross paths with Winona, a young Sioux girl, who they take into their hearts and with whom they later form a thoroughly unconventional family.

There are important patches of history that I feel (a little ashamedly) that I know very little about. And America of the mid-nineteenth century fits within this category. It was a time of great upheaval when the American powerhouse was slowly starting to assert its presence on the world whilst politics regarding race, identity, money and the rule of law were creating different factions within the country, dividing the states into Unionist North and Confederate South. It was a period of industrialisation and modernisation where certain individuals still wanted to cling to the protectionism of slave ownership and the schism that resulted meant large scale conscription into the conflicting armies and an unthinkable loss of life.

“Days Without End” is set against this backdrop. The protagonist, Thomas McNulty, is a chameleon of a character. He starts off as a so-called ‘prairie-fairy’, a dancer in a miners’ tavern kitted out in make-up and a woman’s frock. He then signs up for the army and goes off to fight the Indians where the horror of a brutal massacre teases out glints of what Thomas has been through in his fractured past. Later, he courageously endures the horrors of the Civil War before being taken prisoner and stoically surviving in an awful detention camp. And if this was the entire story that Barry set out to tell, this would still be a brilliant book. However, the main theme of the story is not really the struggle to survive against the harsh odds of time and place, but the importance of finding your identity in whatever pock-marked landscape you might find yourself.

Remarkably, Barry makes us believe in the identity of this most ambiguous of characters. In his wish to continue dressing up in women’s clothing (even when no longer working on the stage) and his tender motherly love for Winona, the Indian child that Thomas adopts along with his brother-in-arms, John Cole, this is a modern protagonist who is gender fluid and unashamed of his avant-garde desires. In the hands of a lesser author, this would seem completely anachronistic but the description of what is happening around them, the beautiful amalgamation of the everyday and the almost unreal happenings of the war all work to anchor this unconventional family within their lawless environment. And by the end, the reader is left questioning, not whether an Irish man running about the countryside wearing a dress and mothering a young Indian girl is a little far-fetched, but rather whether 1850s America really descended into such an aberrant free-for-all that, in the space of just four years, 750,000 soldiers lost their lives.

Who might enjoy this book: Anyone who is a fan of the writing style of Cormac McCarthy. Also, perhaps, fans of Colm Tóibín or Seamus Deane.

Other highly rated books by this author: “The Secret Scripture”, “A Long Long Way”