Book Review: Days Without End by Sebastian Barry

Unforgettable story of friendship and love

DaysWithoutEndAbout the Book

Publisher’s description: Thomas McNulty, aged barely seventeen and having fled the Great Famine in Ireland, signs up for the U.S. Army in the 1850s. With his brother in arms, John Cole, Thomas goes on to fight in the Indian Wars—against the Sioux and the Yurok—and, ultimately, the Civil War. Orphans of terrible hardships themselves, the men find these days to be vivid and alive, despite the horrors they see and are complicit in. Moving from the plains of Wyoming to Tennessee, Sebastian Barry’s latest work is a masterpiece of atmosphere and language. An intensely poignant story of two men and the makeshift family they create with a young Sioux girl, Winona, Days Without End is a fresh and haunting portrait of the most fateful years in American history and is a novel never to be forgotten.

Format: Hardcover Publisher: Faber & Faber Pages: 272
Publication: 20th Oct 2016 Genre: Historical Fiction    

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My Review

Days Without End is one of the novels shortlisted for 2017 The Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction. You can find out more about the prize and the other shortlisted novels here.

In Thomas McNulty, Sebastian Barry has created a distinctive and unforgettable narrative voice.  As Thomas travels the plains of America as a member of the US Army, he paints an evocative picture of the hardships of daily life, with striking use of imagery.

‘Then rain began to fall in an extravagant tantrum. High up in mountain country though we were, every little river became a huge muscled snake, and the water wanted to find out everything, the meaning of our sad roofs for instance, the meaning of our bunk beds beginning to take the character of little barks, the sure calculation that if it fell day and night no human man was going to get his uniform dry.’

He also describes unspeakable acts of savagery carried out by the army on Native American tribes, already been driven off their ancestral lands and living in poverty. The book explores how it is possible for someone to participate in terrible acts against one set of human beings yet show intense love towards others.

The author explores a familiar theme of writers, namely the nature of memory and story-telling. Thomas readily admits not everything he may tell us is true and he ponders philosophically on the nature of time.

‘We have a score of days and we spend them like forgetful drunkards. I ain’t got no argument with it, just saying it is so.’

Thomas forms a deep and unbreakable bond with John Cole. The true nature of their relationship is revealed in simple statements and tender moments.  For example, taking part in a play where Thomas is cast as a female character and John, the suitor, what the audience supposes to be acting is really a true manifestation of their feelings for each other.

‘Handsome John Cole, my beau. Our love in plain sight… There were love imperishable for a rushing moment.’

There is so much to enjoy about the story of Thomas, John and Winona, the Native American girl who becomes part of their unconventional family. Above all, Days Without End is a love story.

‘But if God was trying to make an excuse for us He might point at that strange love between us. Like when you fumbling about in the darkness and you light a lamp and the light come up and rescue things. Objects in a room and the face of a man who seem a dug-up treasure. John Cole. Seems a food. Bread of earth. The lamplight touching his eyes and another light answering.’

It’s near impossible to write a review (well, for me at least) which does justice to this wonderful, unforgettable book. I think it is a ‘dug-up treasure’.  I would simply say, read it.

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Try something similar…A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale

SebastianBarryAbout the Author

Sebastian Barry was born in Dublin in 1955. His novels and plays have won, among other awards, the Kerry Group Irish Fiction Prize, the Costa Book of the Year award, the Irish Book Awards Best Novel, the Independent Booksellers Prize and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. He also had two consecutive novels, A Long Long Way (2005) and The Secret Scripture (2008), shortlisted for the MAN Booker Prize. He lives in Wicklow with his wife and three children.

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8 thoughts on “Book Review: Days Without End by Sebastian Barry

    1. Thank you. I hope you do find time and that you consider it worthwhile when you do. It is a fairly short novel so it has that going for it along with everything else.


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