Review: Days without end

by Sebastian Barry, 2016

*****

Days without end

A story of endurance and love set against the American Civil War. Thomas McNulty, in old age, is looking back at his early life as a young Irish immigrant. When he meets John Cole they become best friends. ‘We were only rats of people. Hunger takes away what you are,’ so they do anything to survive: join the army against the Sioux Indians, dress as women, and go back to the army in the Civil War to fight on the side of the north to end slavery. ‘We worked back and forth through the milling bodies and tried to kill everything that moved in the murk.’ They are so young that ‘time was not something then we thought of as an item that possessed an ending, but something that would go on forever.’ Despite everything they endure, there is a sense of optimism.
The language is amazingly fresh and inventive, with imagery always taken from the world Thomas and John Cole inhabit. Buffalo are ‘a big boil of black molasses in a skillet, surging up.’ The weather is described as ‘endless yards of rain as thick as cloth.’ Or – ‘there’s a great jamboree of lightning and noise that makes the far hills stand out black as burnt bread.’
What makes this novel stand out, is an openness to wonder at the beauty of the world, and the possibility of love in the darkest times – love between men, across races and parental love.
A harrowing, beautifully described story with a unique voice by a writer at the top of his game.

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