Monday, August 7, 2017

I LOVED this book: Days Without End, by Sebastian Barry

Viking, 2017
259 pp


"Every life has its days of happiness despite the ugly Fates."
                                                                                         -- 209

There comes the time when you find that book -- you know, the one that you put down when you've finished and just sit and stare off into space for a while because you're so taken with what you've just read that you can't move. I haven't felt this way since I read Lincoln in the Bardo earlier this year.    How coincidental, since both novels have made it to this year's Man Booker Prize longlist. I'm a huge fan of Sebastian Barry's novels but really, I think he's absolutely outdone himself here.

Just very briefly, and without any sort of spoilers, Days Without End follows young Thomas McNulty, who makes his way from Ireland during the Great Famine and eventually ends up in Missouri, "Way out on those mudflats beyond old St. Louis."   It is there that he first meets John Cole, while taking shelter under a hedge as "the heavens were open in a downpour." They were, as McNulty reveals, "only children obliged to survive in a dangerous terrain," but this meeting was the beginning of what would turn out to be a life-long relationship. These "two wood-shavings of humanity in a rough world" soon find suitable work in Daggsville at a saloon at the young ages of 13 and 15; after their time there is over, they decide to move on and enlist in the army.  As America continues its westward expansion, McNulty and Cole are sent first to Northern California to protect settlers there from the Yurok Indians; they will move on to Ft.Laramie and the Great Plains before they re-enlist upon the outbreak of the Civil War. The novel follows their adventures not only through these troubled times, but also takes us into their lives after the wars are over and people are trying to get on with life.  While the horrors of the battlefields (and much, much worse) come vividly alive through McNulty's eyes here, it is ultimately what he shares with John Cole that sees McNulty through it all and what makes this book so beautiful  in the long run.

That's really all I want to say about plot here because really,  Days Without End is one of those novels that is experienced rather than just simply read.  I mean, I could give away plot points here but for me it isn't really about plot when all is said and done, but far more about long-lasting, unbreakable bonds of love and friendship that  help people to withstand various forms of adversity and keep some men sane while others fall apart.  There's so much more, of course -- history, the immigrant experience, etc. etc., but it's the relationships here that are so meaningful for me and which made me just sit in awe after I'd finished the book.  My only small qualm here is that the ending probably shouldn't have actually gone the way the author gave it to us,  but truth be told, I'm happy things turned out the way they did.

As I'm fond of saying, I'm not a critic, just a very casual sort of reader, so if you want to get much more in depth as to what's going on in this book, do NOT miss this excellent interview with the author from NPR where he explains a lot about where he was coming from in the writing of this novel.   Readers for the most part are loving this book but there are still the naysayers who don't care for the violence and the bleakness depicted here to which I say well, to each his/her own, but the truth is that these terrible, bleak, and violent events actually happened in America's history, in Ireland, on the ships that brought immigrants to North America, and none of it was pretty.

I LOVED this book and most definitely think it's one everyone should read.

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