Days Without End, by Sebastian Barry

As always when I listen to an audiobook, it’s hard to write about Days Without End in specific detail. But here is a line I rewound and replayed:

the little kingdom we have pitched up against the darkness

This is an image of the domestic life narrator Thomas McNulty builds with “handsome John Cole,” his companion, “my beau, my love.” Their kingdom recurs in periods of tranquility between horrors. It works as a description of the novel, too, I think, which is a strangely beautiful, humane and hopeful depiction of horror, which offers us love not as a fix for fear and violence and hatred, but as a force which will always exist alongside them, offering consolation.

This is a Western of sorts: McNulty comes to America as an orphan fleeing the Irish famine, a horror he speaks of mostly indirectly. He and John Cole, a pair of starving, ragged boys, meet under a hedge in Missouri–they are “nothing people.” They dress as girls and work in a saloon, dancing with miners (that this is presented as absolutely not sex work is only one of the ways the book tested my suspension of disbelief). They join the Army and go west to fight Indians, adopting a Sioux girl named Winona. They work in vaudeville (McNulty dressing as a woman, again). They rejoin the Army to fight for the Union side in the Civil War. They make a family with Winona (McNulty as the mother, preferring dresses) on a farm in Tennessee, along with a fellow veteran and two of his father’s former slaves.

I thought, at first, that I wouldn’t read this, because it seemed so likely to go wrong. You can probably see from the summary just how much it could. And though I loved it, I’m not sure it didn’t.

But first, what did I love? The lovely, hypnotic, prose, whose rhythm was enhanced by Aidan Kelly‘s narration (check the reviews linked below for some quotations). It was most notable, perhaps, in the scenes of violence, but it didn’t “prettify” their horror; instead it conveyed the strange, trance-like state McNulty entered in battle. One review I read described the novel as a “fever dream” and another comments that “It may seem incongruous to call a novel as violent as ‘Days Without End’ dreamlike, but Barry’s narrator is a gentle witness to brutality.” That seems to me spot on: McNulty maintains a kind of innocence, tenderness and humanity through everything–without being impossibly angelic–that helps make the novel bearable. Because it is dark and sad and cruel, and often painful to read. For the last hour or so of listening, I felt slightly sick with the tension and really wished I could peek ahead to see how things turned out.

I’ll be thinking about this novel for a long time, and there’s so much I could say about it. But here’s just one more thing. Despite the setting, this is not an American novel. Until almost the very end, McNulty thinks of himself as “a Irish” rather than as American, and Barry’s perspective struck me as very Irish too. Looking at American history from this different angle was interesting but sometimes confounding. Barry’s idea that his Irish hero is “himself essentially a native person, an aboriginal person,” like the Native Americans he slaughters (and the one he adopts, taking her from her own people) is–well, no one needs me to re-hash that one. I didn’t love the novel less because I wanted to argue back at it, but its alien perspective made for some blind spots and gaps, different from those an American author would have. (That line is from a Fresh Air interview with Barry which also gets at the “gay” element of the novel, another plot that raised a lot of questions for me). Maybe it’s not surprising that the novel’s center of value, the loving found family of McNulty, John Cole, and Winona, is also the place where the author’s own values, his need to make their kingdom a pure place “pitched against the dark,” leads him to over-simplify these identities and relationships.

I’m glad I didn’t skip Days Without End, and it could easily go on my shortlist despite my qualms. It’s strength is McNulty’s voice, his endurance, his insistence on love, and those are real strengths.

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6 Responses to Days Without End, by Sebastian Barry

  1. rosario001 says:

    I have just finished this one myself.. or rather, I have just given up on it after reading about two thirds and struggling for days and days to finish it. My problem was with the writing, I think. There was something about the prose, probably the dreamlike quality you describe so well, that pushed me away and kept me from caring. I liked Thomas and his John Cole and Winona fine, but just didn’t feel the tension you describe. I didn’t particularly care how things would turn out. It’s disappointing, because it’s one I really was expecting to like a lot more.

    I’ve had a bit of a slow start with my Man Booker reading this year, but the two I started yesterday (one in audio, one in ebook) I’m really loving, so hopefully I’m over the initial hump!

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I think this is one of those books that was more successful for me in audio than it would have been in print–I might well have gotten bogged down in it if I were reading, because it is quite episodic, without a lot of plot momentum until the very end (which was the tense part). I found it slow going in the first half, especially. But when I’m listening I’m always doing something else with a small part of my mind–walking, doing dishes–and that can keep me going through slow patches.

      The narrator’s style also helped ground the prose, if that makes sense; it added intensity and emotion to language that might otherwise have seemed too dreamlike or abstract at times.

  2. Janine Ballard says:

    “Despite the setting, this is not an American novel. Until almost the very end, McNulty thinks of himself as “a Irish” rather than as American, and Barry’s perspective struck me as very Irish too.”

    Does the novel address the process of assimilation at all? Because speaking as one who came to the US from another country, no matter how much you love your homeland, no matter how much it formed you, you can’t help but be gradually, partially re-formed by the place you live.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Hmm. Here is where I wish I had a print copy and could refresh my memory about what exactly McNulty says about America at the end. But I think basically my answer is no, or not in any conventional sense. I didn’t see the novel as having any sense of an American *culture* a person could assimilate to. Or, really, of an Irish culture, and I think in a way this is what McNulty means by the Irish being “nothing people,” that they are not just treated as disposable, but are in some way almost outside of culture. Barry probably loves Ireland but I’m not sure McNulty does. He associates it with horror.

      (I will note here that a lot of the other white characters McNulty also identifies as “Irish,” and you have the Civil War almost as 2 Irish canon fodder groups used against each other–the history of this is addressed in the NPR interview).

      At the same time, that lack of identification with a group except “nothing” Irish allows him to make his family of other “nothing” people, including Winona and the former slaves (whose names I am blanking on, another hazard of listening). And that is, I think, meant in part as a metaphor for the making of American, these disparate groups coming together to make something new, although this metaphor is problematic in how easy it is. This is a novel that doesn’t erase the violence of westward expansion or the Civil War at all, and yet you have this happy little family whose relationships are somehow unmarked by that violence–it’s appealing to me but such a fantasy. (That wandered a long way from the question of assimilation, but this is totally different from most immigrant stories in not really addressing those cultural questions and I think that’s part of what makes it feel dreamy and not an “American” novel. It also made me wonder to what extent Barry really sees the multiplicty of American culture beyond Anglo Saxon–there are some nods to that but African American culture and other immigrant groups are almost absent).

      That was such an interesting question about this book! Thanks.

  3. Sunita says:

    What an intriguing (and excellent) post, Liz. I’m definitely reading this next, not least because I want to see how the Americanness or lack therefore comes across to me. I can see that it might not feel “American” in the way it would if it were written by an American rather than an Irish author, but what you describe feels pretty authentically American to me in terms of the era. This is 1851, right? So McNulty is a refugee of the Great Famine and colonialism. If that’s underlying why he sees himself as somehow comparable to American Indians, I can kind of buy it.

    And I wouldn’t expect a novel set in the 1850s to talk about the cultural assimilation or Americanness of its immigrant characters, unless it was one of the main themes. There was considerable cultural upheaval in populated areas, especially the cities and towns of the northeast US, but some immigrant communities in the plains and frontier kept their language and customs for generations. The influx of Irish and other immigrants in the 1850s was part of the reason for the nativist backlash, which was what Americanness mostly looked like then. Assimilation was really a late 19thC and 20thC concept in terms of the way we think about it today.

    The violence sounds like Cormac McCarthy. I’m tempted by the audiobook but I think I’ll do better with print.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Thank you so much for this, especially the point about assimilation. I realize that part of the reason it seems “strange” to me or “not American” is that most of the immigrant stories I have read (fiction or non) are 20th century or very late 19th, and urban (and many by/about people of color as well). They do seem to me to have “tropes,” though I’m probably conflating many stories in my mind when I say this–generational conflicts, culture shock, upward mobility, etc. And this story has none of that, really (though most of it is a step up from wearing a sack and sheltering under a hedge!). So maybe that is why I thought about it as not a typically “American” story (though I have read British and Canadian immigrant stories like this too). You’re right that it isn’t ahistorical or inaccurate.

      Hunger is a big theme in the book, yes. They are short of rations in the army, and they spend time in Andersonville, which as you know had serious food shortages. And it’s something McNulty comments on about the Sioux as well, so it is a point of identification–he says they were complying with the treaty and never got the food they were promised and notes the signs of hunger when he sees them again. (This, too, is historically accurate as I’m sure you know). So yes, it is a logical point of identification with them.

      I am really looking forward to hearing what you think.

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