Grand Tour #28 – Ireland. Days Without End / Sebastian Barry

To the end of my journey, and what a journey it’s been. Well, not really, it’s just been 28 books, and most of them have left me not much wiser about anything, let alone their countries of origin. But some of them (thinking particularly of those from Germany, Greece and the UK) have been treasures, and it’s always a good idea to read something out of one’s comfort zone, and to read books in translation.

Not that my final book is in translation, or obscure, or even set in its author’s own country; but it is a joy. It’s Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End, which won the Costa Book Award in 2016. It’s narrated by Thomas McNulty, an Irish immigrant, and relates his experiences in the America of the mid-19th century, fighting in the Indian Wars and later the Civil War, at the same time telling the story of his love affair with a fellow soldier, John Cole, and their establishment of an unconventional family unit.

The book is dedicated to Barry’s gay son Toby, and Barry has spoken in interviews about how his writing of the book was informed by Toby’s coming out. I raised an eyebrow slightly at this, dubious about the event’s momentousness. Is coming out such a big deal for a parent nowadays, does it change one’s view of things so profoundly? Well, perhaps so, and it’s not for me to say, and Barry is an earnest and amiable man (I just listened to his Private Passions), and if in some way the book represents a testament to his son’s sexuality then it’s one of the most beautiful tributes imaginable.

Not that you’d call it a gay novel, necessarily. Its focus for much of the time is fighting, not loving. The battle scenes can be brutal, and at the start they brought back memories of my foolhardy decision, aged 10 or so, to take an after-school class on the Wild West taught by my maths teacher, purely on the basis of my having loved Copland’s Billy the Kid. Goodness it was dull. It took me years to recognise the appeal of the Western as a genre (though I did, and couldn’t now write a list of my favourite films without at least Shane on it). Other things I was reminded of, to give a vague idea of the book: Cormac McCarthy, Huckleberry Finn, Brokeback Mountain, and The Oregon Trail (not that they get anywhere near Oregon), which we used to play on the school computers, giving each character an obscene name.

Only it’s not boring like Mr Hake’s (let’s call him) Wild West course, and the battles are immediate and even, to my surprise, given books rarely (i.e. never) have this effect on me, exciting.

Sergeant shouts draw sabres so he does and now we show our thirty swords to the sunlight and the sunlight ravishes every inch of them. Sergeant never has given that order in all our time because you might as well light a fire as draw a sabre in the brightness as far as signals go. But something has the wind up him. Suddenly an old sense of life we haven’t remembered floods back into us. The air of manhood fills our skins. Some can’t help hollering and the sergeant screams at us to keep the line. We wonder what he is thinking. Soon we are at the fringes of the tent town, we tear through in a second, like riders in an old storybook, sweeping in.

You can hear Thomas McNulty’s voice clearly here, conversational, informal, occasionally fragmentary, yet eloquent and poetic. I’m not always conscious of hearing someone speak when I read, but I frequently heard his voice, sometimes with an Irish accent, more often with an American one. His experience is that of the typical American soldier of the time, I imagine, only as a shrewd observer of humanity he’s better placed to chronicle it than most others.

Time passes in the book without your noticing it. Thomas and John effectively become the adoptive fathers of a young Sioux girl they call Winona; one blink and she has become a teenager, and yet the feeling is not of having jumped ahead but that time has flowed so organically as to be almost invisible, as time passes in our lives. How is it that this thing I remember as vividly as if it were yesterday actually happened 18 years ago? How is it that Thomas and John are in their thirties already, when only a moment ago they were teenagers earning money by dressing as girls for miners to dance with in Mr Noone’s saloon, ‘two wood-shavings of humanity in a rough world’.

The matter of cross-dressing is treated with sensitivity and beauty. Over time Thomas finds he prefers wearing women’s clothes, emboldened perhaps by his encounters with berdache Indians, and this cross-dressing extends to gender fluidity. When dressed as a woman Thomas feels himself female, and goes by Thomasina, even going through a marriage ceremony with John in this persona. None of this feels remotely anachronistic, and I felt exhilarated at Thomas’s delight in his gender expression. (What did feel anachronistic to me sometimes was Thomas’s complete lack of racial prejudice, at any rate against the black characters, whose cause he champions; in this respect he seems a 21st-century man, but I suppose there had to be some forward-thinkers then for us to get where we are today.)

At the heart of the book is the love story, which I suspect is affecting precisely because of its being low-key and because neither Thomas nor John expresses emotion readily (hints of The Remains of the Day, perhaps, though thankfully there’s some consummation in this book). The first proof that they are lovers is a ‘We quietly fucked’ that is dropped in matter-of-factly but not dwelt upon. The story really caught my imagination at the point where, discharged from the army, they set up house together, the switch from military to domestic being more to my taste, and the intensity of war making civilian life seem all the sweeter.

In the darkness as we lie side by side John Cole’s left hand snakes over under the sheets and takes a hold of my right hand. We listen to the cries of the night revellers outside and hear the horses tramping along the ways. We’re holding hands then like lovers who have just met or how we imagine lovers might be in the unknown realm where lovers act as lovers without concealment.

The book (spoiler alert) ends on a happy note, and I’m pleased to end this project similarly. It’s brought some joy and some frustration, but mostly the former, and I suppose that’s what one hopes for in reading as in life. Thanks for reading, if you have been. The blog will now fall into its customary neglect but I’ll be back presently with the end-of-year/start-of-year posts I generally do.

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One Response to “Grand Tour #28 – Ireland. Days Without End / Sebastian Barry”

  1. Michael Harvey Says:

    Delighted you enjoyed this beautiful, exquisitely written novel

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