Days Without End by Sebastian Barry, Publisher - Faber and Faber in 2016
Alex Clark explores notions of national identity and self-renewal as two young soldiers find intimacy amid the horrors of war
Sebastian Barry's commitment to telling the stories of two Irish families, the Dunnes and the McNultys, over several novels and multiple time frames and locations, has led to one of the most compelling, bravura and heart-wrenching fictional projects of recent memory. Its gaps and fissures, its silences, its elaboration of attachment, separation and loss amount to a profound meditation on the nature of national identity, enforced emigration and the dispersal of a people into lands frequently inhospitable and alienating, there to forge a new life.
Days Without End, a fever dream of a novel that has much in common, particularly in terms of style, with Barry's prize-winning The Secret Scripture, presents us with Thomas McNulty, who has crossed the Atlantic to rebuild his life. The traumatic chaos of what he has left behind in Sligo - his family dead from famine, his country "starved in her stocking feet. And she had no stockings" - is more than matched by the horrors that he encounters in a US in the grip of self-creation, its expansionist violence underwritten by its adherence to the notion of manifest destiny.
It is the 1850s, and Thomas has arrived in Missouri by way of Quebec, a journey that is revealed only in snippets that lightly inflect the novel. His brief explanation of the aptitude he and those like him show for soldiery - "How we were able to see slaughter without flinching.
Because we were nothing ourselves, to begin with" - is later amplified by the nightmarish tale he hears from a fellow Irishman whose passage to the New World ends with corpses floating in the bilges, immured and abandoned. "That's why no one will talk," reflects Thomas, feeling that what has happened is simply not accounted as a subject. "That's because we were thought worthless. Nothing people. I guess that's what it was. That thinking just burns through your brain for a while. Nothing but scum."
In the US, Thomas is many things, as Barry's mobile, ambiguous characters frequently are. At the beginning, having teamed up with a boy named John Cole, he is a dancer, rigged out in women's clothing to entertain miners starved of female company; a so-called "prairie fairy".
But when the bloom of youth departs the pair at 17, they volunteer for the US Army and join the Oregon trail to California - "weeks and weeks of riding and then turn left at some place I forget" - to undertake a different kind of service. "We knew in our hearts our work was to be Indians," recalls Thomas; those who now regard themselves as the rightful occupants of the south-west want rid of them, at a price of two dollars a scalp.
A brutal raid on an Indian settlement follows, its description made remarkable by Barry's trademark blend of forceful clarity and otherworldliness, his ability to scent the mundane in the apocalyptic and vice versa. In a passage that calls to mind one of The Secret Scripture's most vivid and defining scenes - that of an orphanage on fire - the transformative effect of such destruction on its participants is memorably captured:
"More sparks flew up, it was a complete vision of world's end and death, in those moments I could think no more, my head bloodless, empty, racketing, astonished … We were dislocated, we were not there, now we were ghosts." The earlier book also resurfaces via the image of rats, here pictured as swarming emblems of the will to survive, "dozens of the critters swimming for their lives".
But Barry's business extends beyond intense and visceral description, though that persists through a narrative that eventually encompasses the American civil war as well as increasingly complex interactions with indigenous communities. It also captures the development of Thomas and John's relationship, the men's sexual attraction to one another announced early in the novel by the simple, paragraph-long sentence: "And then we quietly fucked and then we slept." What makes this strand of storyline unexpected is that it ushers in an exploration of gender fluidity and a redefinition of family that seems to scream anachronism but is nonetheless convincing.
Days Without End is a work of staggering openness; its startlingly beautiful sentences are so capacious that they are hard to leave behind, its narrative so propulsive that you must move on. In its pages, Barry conjures a world in miniature, inward, quiet, sacred; and a world of spaces and borders so distant they can barely be imagined. Taken as a whole, his McNulty adventure is experimental, self-renewing, breathtakingly exciting. It is probably not ended yet.
The reviewer is a British journalist. The write-up has appeared at www.theguardian.com
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