‘Days Without End’ by Sebastian Barry tells the story of Thomas McNulty, a young Irishman who emigrates to Canada and later the United States in the mid-19th century after his family perished in the Great Famine. He befriends and falls in love with John Cole when they are teenagers and they work at a saloon where they dress as women and dance for miners. They later enlist for the US army fighting in two wars and adopt an orphaned Indian Sioux girl who they name Winona.
Sebastian Barry is an author who is new to me and I didn’t know until after I had finished ‘Days Without End’ that his previous novels, two of which have been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, also feature other members of the McNulty family across different generations. As the books are interlinked rather than a series, ‘Days Without End’ still reads well as a stand-alone novel. It is a western which is lyrical in style as opposed to the more typically gritty works of the genre.
The landscape is beautifully described, as is the context of the gold rush and Indian wars during the 1850s and eventually the Civil War a decade later. The pace is slow and the tone of Thomas’ stream-of-consciousness remains understated despite enduring a succession of near-fatal experiences alongside John including starvation, the brutal horrors of war and extreme weather conditions, demonstrating a superhuman level of resilience throughout.
The romantic side of Thomas and John’s relationship is barely acknowledged and on the rare occasions when it is, it is dealt with very matter-of-factly and this subtlety contrasts with the chaos of their surroundings. However, I think the vagueness sometimes prevented me from developing much of a connection with the characters and John in particular remains an enigma despite supposedly being at the centre of the story. I found this surprising but it seems that this was Barry’s intention as Thomas says of John towards the end: “I don’t even truly know his nature. He a perpetual stranger and I delight in that.”
Based on the quality of the prose alone, ‘Days Without End’ stands a good chance of being longlisted for the Man Booker Prize later this month having already won other awards including the Costa Book of the Year. It’s not a novel I really fell in love with but I can see why it has struck a chord with so many readers and I would recommend it to those who enjoy historical fiction.