‘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.
11 responses to “Days Without End by Sebastian Barry”
I agree with much of your review – I just recently read the book too; I did think that it was too long and could have been shorter without losing any of its impact. John Cole really is a mystery isn’t he! I recommend you read other books by Barry, particularly ‘Secret Scripture’ which features other McNultys. Great review, thank you!
Yes, it’s quite densely written! Thanks for the recommendation, I will look out for that one.
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I’ve seen this book pop up on blogs and booktube videos and I must say this review gives me the best idea of what to expect. I’m still not sure if I want to read it, though. It’s definitely far from my comfort zone, but it does sound vaguely interesting.
It’s worth a read, but I was a little surprised that it has received so many glowing reviews. Hope you enjoy it if you ever do read it.
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I found it so depressing! I have stalled less than a quarter of the way through. Does it get better?
Not really… I was surprised by how many people had raved about it.
I finally finally found the stomach to finish this. It was worth it in the end, the ending was quite uplifting and made me feel emotional (unusual for me with a book) but my goodness it was a gruelling journey.
Yes, it was definitely hard-going for me too!