Saturday 16 December 2017

Barry shines in gritty love story

Fiction: Days Without End, Sebastian Barry, Faber & Faber, €13.99

Sebastian Barry's writing is 'engaging, humane and beautiful'. Photo: Frank Mc Grath
Sebastian Barry's writing is 'engaging, humane and beautiful'. Photo: Frank Mc Grath

Niall MacMonagle

George Eliot believed that a "drop of ink at the end of my pen" could reveal "far-reaching visions of the past". Sebastian Barry's fiction always reads like pen and ink writing, written with quiet care.

Preoccupied with and always imagining the past, his family background is his inspiration and, if you picture a family sepia photograph of several generations, Barry takes a different character each time and gives an individual's perspective on momentous historical events.

The Dunnes and the McNultys appear and reappear and Barry's novels are memory reservoirs; his narrators trawl the past to make sense of the present. In On Canaan's Side Lilly Bere (nee Dunne) mourns a brother, a son, a grandson destroyed, decades apart, by war. Jack McNulty's story in The Temporary Gentleman remembers his Sligo past, troubled marriage, his time in the British Army. In Days Without End, it's Thomas McNulty's turn to tell his extraordinary story, once again about "the business of war".

Barry writes the same novel over and over yet each one is original, unique and surprising. Here he covers huge territory, over several decades, and this time it's mid-nineteenth century America at war - first white supremacists against the Native Americans and then the Civil War.

Against this brutal, violent background the intimate relationship between "wren-sized" Thomas McNulty, "the child of poor Sligonians", a stowaway on a coffin ship, and 6ft 3in, handsome New Englander John Cole, is quietly told. McNulty remembers their "fateful encounter" in their teens, those "days without end".

Their loyal same-sex relationship is vital and natural. Their love is discreet, there isn't an unsavoury detail anywhere: "John Cole and me sought out a hollow away from prying eyes," and, when they find "a half-blind preacher", McNulty dons a dress and "we tie the knot". Between wars they work as dancing girls and minstrels, allowing Barry to explore gender identity, fluidity, open-mindedness: "I am easy as a woman, taut as a man. All my limbs is broke as a man and fixed good as a woman. I lie down with the soul of woman and wake with the same."

Though an historical novel, one in which the past speaks to our present, very few dates are given but Barry has done his research.

We learn about the building of breastworks and the "new kinda bullets we ain't seen to shoot Indians with. Not round like the old ones, but the shape of a arched door into a church". The vicious, grotesque descriptions of men fighting remind us of the stupidity of war: "It's a dark thing when the world sets no value on you or your kin, and then Death comes stalking in, in his bloody boots."

But this restless, brutal world with its racism, decapitations, scalpings, amputations, ice storms and frostbite is tempered with tender and beautiful descriptive passages of silent snow falls, cherry trees, a wood in moonlight. McNulty's voice is idiomatic, slangy, crude, wise, questioning, poetic and lyrical. Past tense becomes present tense giving the writing a fine immediacy though improbable vocabulary [empurpled, mien, ubiquitous], unlikely references to Canute and Zeus and elaborate similes sometimes intrude.

When Cole adopts Winona, an orphaned eight-year old "injun maid", the novel takes a new direction. Years pass, Lincoln is dead, the Civil War is over and McNulty, Cole and Winona live on a farm but their past catches up with them.

There comes a point when their situation becomes so complex with betrayal, treachery, revenge and tension-filled plot twists the novel becomes a gripping page-turner.

What Capote flippantly said of Kerouac, "That's not writing, that's typing", could never be said of Sebastian Barry. In Days Without End, that's writing: engaging, humane and beautiful. This is Barry's most powerful and memorable novel yet.

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