In his most recent novel, Sebastian Barry returns with a beguiling epic, exploring the intricacy of human relationships with America’s Civil War years as a brutal backdrop.
Days Without End is something of a ‘Civil War Odyssey’, depicting the life of Thomas McNulty – a consciously compassionate and complex protagonist – following his arrival to America from famine ridden Ireland, and his development from a cross-dressing show boy into a man riddled with the effects of prolonged military service.
Barry’s style is not one to be approached lightly; his use of intra-diegetic narration includes all the jargon of a Civil War soldier and often gives his work a simplistic linear design. Initially, the text appears as a long train of thought, laborious and saturated with menial observations. Yet, far from quashing desire to continue reading, it works effortlessly as a device to mirror and exemplify the monotonous and unpredictable existence of soldiers. Within the mere space of a sentence the narrative can leap from a lengthy description of trees, to the midst of a bloody battle, with next to no build up or creation of suspense. In apparently rejecting conventions of literary style Barry creates something blissfully authentic and honest. Perhaps the most compelling and defining aspect of Days Without End is the central relationship between McNulty and his companion since childhood, “handsome” John Cole, whose persistent reference renders him the lamenting motif of the novel. Barry’s eased introduction of the relationship and the effortlessness at which McNulty expresses his deepest devotion depicts the relationship as innately natural; despite being set in a culture deeply consigned to the heteronormative.
The intensity of McNulty’s and Cole’s relationship is only rivalled in their ‘adoption’ of an orphaned Sioux girl Winona: a significant turning point within the novel, in both density and pace. The idyllic period that ensues, in which the three play out an unconventional family situation, and appear at their most content, succeeds in challenging the strict definition of what is considered a ‘family’. In doing so, Barry champions the importance and strength of all human companionship. Barry’s raising of themes of homosexuality, family and gender identity in the midst of a conventional wartime narrative is a feat of genius, demonstrated in McNulty’s emotionally fuelled declaration: “I guess love laughs at history a little.”
Far from cutting any corners, Days Without End identifies America’s viciously unforgiving past and presents the intense dichotomy of the nation within the Civil War period. McNulty plays an active role in the blind massacre of Native Americans as part of America’s ‘Manifest Destiny’ – the aggressive push against natives for western settlement.
The dichotomy pervades in McNulty later enlisting for the Unionists, and his evident disgust at the slave trade and subjugation of the black community. Effortlessly passing from suppression of one minority, to showing pride in ‘emancipating’ another, McNulty embodies the bloody contradiction that went into building modern America.
This is a unique triumph of a novel, seeping to the brim with modernity in its echoing of many of today’s most pertinent debates. Days Without End will have a deservedly profound, lasting influence.
Days Without End by Sebastian Barry
Faber & Faber (2016)
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