America, 1850s: a country still in the making, where there are frontiers and wild spaces beyond them. It’s here Thomas McNulty has fled to from his home in Sligo, fleeing famine, loss, hardship and uncertainty. It’s also here he meets ‘handsome’ John Cole: fellow orphan and the one who will become his friend, brother in arms, lover and husband. Together, they will go from cross-dressing to entertain a woman-less town of miners to the US army, where they will fight to earn a living, to survive, and, eventually, form a family.
The ninth novel from Irish novelist and playwright Sebastian Barry, Days Without End was recently voted the 2016 Costa Book of the year, making him the first – he was previously awarded it in 2008 for The Secret Scripture – to win it twice. And although the other nominations were equally worthy contenders, this is an honour well-deserved.
The story follows Thomas – a member of the McNulty clan, who Barry has written about previously in The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty & The Temporary Gentleman – and John during their time in US army, serving during the Indian and the American Civil Wars (with a brief music-hall stint in-between) and is essentially about their quest to survive and form a family, especially after they end up adopting a little girl from the local Sioux population. Now, some may be tempted to say that the depiction of a gay relationship without overt discrimination in the nineteenth century is projecting more enlightened, modern sensibilities onto history (seemingly forgetting the fact that, in a lot of countries – certainly in the UK and Ireland – homosexuality was only decriminalized in the latter half of the last century and even today the LBGTQ community is still subject to prejudice and bigotry from those in certain quarters of society) and to those who are, I counter with two points. First, the environments in which the story mainly takes place: frontier mining towns, the theatre, battlefields, army barracks, convoys and camps – not only are they mainly all male environments but also environments that are outside the conventions of regular society and, therefore, places where those conventions either do not matter quite so much or are not applied as rigorously. Second, and more important, is something Barry himself pointed during an interview on the Guardian podcast: history is written by the victors – just because they weren’t written down doesn’t mean these lives weren’t being lived.
The relationship between Thomas and John is one of the most beautiful elements of the book in the way that it’s depicted: tender and mutual without being overly sentimental; healthy and functional; frank and straightforward, with a natural progression. There have been great tragic portrayals of homosexual relationships in fiction but it goes without saying that we need more like this. There is also some exploration of gender fluidity through Thomas’s episodes of cross-dressing: first, as a boy, entertaining the men in a mining town, where he notices the effect it has on the men and on himself; second, during the brief period he, John and their adopted daughter have a theatre act, where he begins to explore this effect further; third and finally, when they all settle on a farm and Thomas wears women’s clothing for no reason other than because he wants to and feels comfortable doing so, to the point where he admits he wouldn’t mind being thought of as their daughter’s mother.
The other beautiful thing about this novel is the writing itself. The story is told from the first-person point of view in Thomas’s gregarious staccato voice which, tonally & rhythmically, comes across as a mix of Irish & western American drawl: “The method of laying out a corpse in Missouri sure took the proverbial cake.” Little wonder Barry said once he’d found that opening line the rest of the book was waiting there behind it. The effect this has is that every sentence is a block of wood that’s been whittled away into a shape, minus the finer details. A thing of rough-hewn beauty.
Part western, part bildungsroman, part love story, part historical, part war story, with a conclusion that has you hoping – and yet secretly certain – that a happy ending the right shape for these characters is right around the corner with the turn of that final page – forever out of sight just offstage, but there – adds up to a finished product that is definitely more than just the sum of these parts.