Hunger and heat waves, fever and floods, frostbite and freezing rain. These and other miseries befall the narrator of Sebastian Barry’s new historical novel. In turn, the young soldier inflicts his own set of terrors on the world.
“Days Without End” is a story with some tremendously brutal scenes. At its heart is Thomas McNulty, an Irishman who has fled his famine-stricken country and joined up with the U.S. military. Armed with a musket and a bayonet, he’s part of a unit that slaughters American Indians. Later, during the Civil War, he re-enlists and takes the fight to secessionist troops.
The book starts in the early 1850s, as Thomas, just 17, has stumbled into what will become the most important relationship of his life. As he explains it in his punctuation-optional style, “Thank God John Cole was my first friend in America and so in the army too and the last friend for that matter.”
Thomas is eager to share intimate details about “this man most dear to me.” Before page 30, he and John, a fellow enlistee, have made love for the first time.
As is surely clear by now, this is a busy novel: a bloody war saga that also happens to be a tale of forbidden love; a lament for those who perished during the Great Famine, and a paean to the vigor of the natural world. It recently won the Costa Book Award, a prestigious annual prize for writers in Ireland and the United Kingdom.
Barry’s fiction often re-examines crucial moments in the history of his native Ireland. He writes with intensity and confidence. No one can outdo Cormac McCarthy when it comes to evoking the feral, punishing nature of frontier life in the 19th century, but at times, Barry comes pretty close.
In one of several gruesome episodes, Thomas and his cohort are commanded to attack an Indian encampment. “We worked back and forth through the milling bodies and tried to kill everything that moved in the murk,” he says. “Two, three, four fell to my thrusts, and I was astonished not to be fired on, astonished at the speed and the horror of the task, and the exhilaration of it, my heart now not racing but burning in my breast like a huge coal. I stabbed and I stabbed.”
Barry’s depictions of hand-to-hand combat are enormously disturbing but never gratuitous. They remind us of the unforgivable state-sanctioned massacre of native peoples, and the role that order-following young men have played in such awful events.
“Days Without End” spends much of its time on the Thomas-John relationship. These scenes are moving and tender. When the men read a newspaper article about a new theory that has vexed the scientific community — that humans are descended from less sophisticated primates — they make light of it: “John Cole says he loves me more than any man since the apes roamed.”
Barry is expecting too much, however, when he asks the reader to accept a jarring plot turn that occurs in the novel’s first half: Thomas and John’s adoption of an Indian child. In an otherwise immaculately structured book, this is an egregious misstep considering the role Thomas and his fellow soldiers play in decimating the Indian population.
The tone-deafness of this narrative development reduces the novel’s appeal, but “Days Without End” is still powerful and unsettling, an important look at one of history’s most regrettable chapters.
Kevin Canfield is a writer and critic in New York City.
Days Without End
By: Sebastian Barry.
Publisher: Viking, 259 pages, $26.