Days Without End by Sebastian Barry

I’m not ready to talk about how good this book is. I don’t really have an adequate way of expressing just how much I adored reading this. This is going to maybe be the most incoherent review I have ever written because I can only really make weird grunting sounds when I try to express how I feel about Days Without End.

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It’s the story of Thomas McNulty, an Irish soldier in America during the Indian Wars and the Civil War. He witnesses incredible brutality, but, as he explains, is well-equipped to deal with it having lost his entire family to horrific famine and abject poverty back in Sligo, and then crossed the Atlantic in a nightmarish journey. The description of battles and fighting is visceral and beautiful and violent and poetic in equal measure. Barry has an incredible way with prose, to the point that as I was reading I was unable to understand just how he achieved it. Like, I was having to take pauses just to digest the structure of the sentences.

What is particularly wonderful is the way he can flip on a dime from moving reflections on life, to talking about how the soldiers are so afraid that they are quite literally shitting themselves, to the most beautiful description of violent death by bayonet imaginable. There is no transition between these disparate moments, they are just blended together in this poetic, lyrical way which is entirely beyond my ability to describe.

Throughout the novel, Thomas’s constant companion is another Irishman, John Cole. The two first meet under a hedge as young teenagers, and from then on are essentially inseparable.  They first find work as dancers, dressed as women to partner the miners. Once they are too old to convincingly pass as women, they join the army together. After a particularly vicious sequence, the soldiers are celebrating and a simple, brief reference is made to the two soldiers having “quietly fucked”.

This brief moment is the start of the love story which underpins the entire novel, which encompasses an examination of gender fluidity and what constitutes a family. While it is not entirely believable that at that time two men would have been able to marry one another (even if Thomas does wear a dress and give his name as Thomasina), or live with a young Indian girl as family, somehow Barry makes it perfectly believable. I didn’t even register that it is implausible and anachronistic until I thought about it afterwards.

As the novel moves forward, Thomas increasingly identifies as a woman, preferring to wear dresses whenever possible and acting very much as a mother to Winona, the young Indian girl they come to treat as their own child. This is always in contrast to his stereotypically masculine role as a soldier, a role to which he constantly returns despite the horrors he witnesses and the violent ends of many of his friends.

I have no caveats with this novel, no critiques, nothing to counteract just how much I loved it. I have never read prose like this, and I am absolutely staggered by his ability with words.


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