Sebastian Barry continues the multigenerational tale of the McNulty family in Days Without End, exploring the relationship between Ireland and the United States during the 19th Century. Following the novel’s release in October 2016, Barry became the first author to win the Costa Book of the Year Award twice.
The novel follows Thomas McNulty, a young man who flees to the United States to escape the Great Famine of Ireland. Along the way he meets ‘the beautiful John Cole’ and the two quickly form an unbreakable lifelong bond. The best friends and lovers work as cross-dressing dancers in a saloon, before enlisting in the U.S. Army and fighting in both the Indian and Civil Wars.
The scope is epic and sweeping, spanning multiple decades and military conflicts. There are vicious acts of cruelty committed against the Sioux tribes and epic battles with the Confederate Army, however at its heart Days Without End is a story of love found in the most desolate of places. The barbaric acts of violence are contrasted by moments of compassion and intimacy, such as the formation of an unconventional family unit: John, Thomas and their adopted daughter, a young Sioux girl named Winona. The LGBTQ+ themes are handled with delicacy and grace, with the depiction of Thomas and John’s relationship being heavily influenced by Barry’s own son’s experiences of being gay. At times, I found myself wishing for further character development, especially in John Cole. Nevertheless, the vivid narrative voice of Thomas makes up for this, creating the feeling of an old friend recounting his extraordinary life experiences.
The plot is fast paced and action-packed
The language is beautiful and vibrant, painting an evocative portrait of the hardship and horrors of war. Barry makes you feel the cold, hunger and pain experienced by the young men fighting in the war. The plot is fast paced and action-packed, yet enough time is left for detailed and visceral descriptions of the war-torn landscape, the seasonal changes and the unbearable heat of the American West.
From being longlisted for the Man Booker Prize to being named the 2016 Costa Book of the Year, Sebastian Barry deserves all of the praise he has received for this phenomenal work of fiction. I found this to be an all-consuming read that will stay with me for years to come, and I cannot implore you enough to read this book.
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