In Days Without End we follow Thomas McNulty who, at seventeen, has fled the Great Famine in Ireland that caused the death of his family. After making it to America in the 1850s, Thomas meets his brother in arms and would-be lifelong companion, the handsome John Cole. Together the two of them sign up for the US Cavalry and fight in the Indian Wars, and ultimately the Civil War. We see the two men witness and cause the horrors of fighting in the wars, and see them become parents to a young Indian girl, Winona. This novel is certainly unique in its storytelling, and has many beautiful aspects; I do not think I will forget it for a long time.
The novel is told to us by Thomas, who talks to us directly in colloquial language. Because of this the sentences are free-flowing and long, and you really get the sense you are living through what Tom is living. Sebastian Barry really is a master of language; Tom’s voice is real and true, and his perception of events and actions create a great atmosphere. This style of storytelling also allows controversial topics of the time to be explored simply and naturally. Thomas feels most at home whilst in a dress, pretending to be a woman, and the fact of him and John Cole being secret lovers is not used as a shocking plot point, but is a natural part of Thomas’ life. This was extremely refreshing and touching.
I enjoyed this novels’s story line. Both men are orphans and have been through terrible hardships, and to follow both their relationship and their journeys across many American states was intriguing. The aspects of the novel that discussed fighting in the war were fascinating; both men commit atrocities such as massacring Indians, and they get worn to the point where they cannot feel anything unless they are killing, and they so desperately want to feel alive. The idea that every person has many dimensions and that there are good and bad on every side resonated throughout. Ultimately Thomas and John Cole meet Winona at a Sioux encampment, and create their family, which is a whole other fascinating story.
I was immediately interested in this novel when I heard that it won this years Costa Book Award – and now the Walter Scott Prize as well! – and while I can see that it was extremely cleverly crafted and beautifully written, I often found the language quite difficult to understand, and thus felt a bit of a disconnect with the story. I also did not feel I got much of a connection with the two central characters, which I always love in a story. Nevertheless, the author still does manage to portray a real and raw picture of their relationships in few words, and I understand this was purposeful in the novel.
Ultimately this was an intense and poignant novel, that discusses questions of identity surrounding a person’s country of birth, their race and their sexuality openly and poignantly. It also gives a great insight into those fateful years in American history, which is extremely interesting and gritty. While this novel did not necessarily work with me and my tastes and did not make a huge impact on me as I am sure it did others, I would recommend people to try it if they think this novel sounds interesting to them.