Days without End by Sebastian Barry
It scares me how many times I walked past this beautiful book. In the days of big publishing houses and even bigger marketing budgets, it is not at all uncommon to get enticed by a cover and find on reading it that the writing doesn’t quite match the hype. The opposite is true with this one. Days without End looks like a self-help novel* and sounds like a Bond movie but is actually the most magnificent, outstretched, heart-wrenching page turner I’ve read all year.
The story follows two teenage boys (Thomas McNulty and the handsome John Cole) who join the US Army together in 1850. Both escaping their own struggles, army life takes them across the plains of Wyoming, through the mountains of Tennessee and the deep snow of Missouri, mostly to slaughter native Indian tribes. These ‘friends’ endure hunger, sickness, terror and loss but it doesn’t stop them re-enlisting again after the break of Civil War.
This is not just a story; it is more like a series of rolling battles, wilderness scenes and meditations on loyalty. Paced to perfection, I loved the contrast of the violence against the landscape and the little breathing spaces where the characters contemplate the ironies of war and the blurred lines of men, women, friends and lovers.
The language is true to time and character and would have taken years of research and focus to deliver. It takes a few pages to adjust to but is worth taking slowly because it is riddled with golden references and expressions, some so whip smart that you wonder how they haven’t entered the English vernacular before.
I can only guess that Barry was so spent by his effort writing that he ran out of puff when it came to the title and the cover (though perhaps the marketing department should bear the brunt of that minor criticism) – Either way, I forgive him/them completely.
And that’s my 2 cents worth.
*To be fair, the cover of the US edition looks better.