Saturday, 23 September 2017

Days Without End by Sebastian Barry

Reading Group Read
301 pages


Twice Booker-shortlisted author Sebastian Barry returns with a sensational new novel set in mid-19th Century America, an intensely poignant story of two men and the lives they are dealt.

'Time was not something then we thought of as an item that possessed an ending, but something that would go on for ever, all rested and stopped in that moment. Hard to say what I mean by that. You look back at all the endless years when you never had that thought. I am doing that now as I write these words in Tennessee. I am thinking of the days without end of my life. And it is not like that now...'

Having signed up for the US army in the 1850s, aged barely seventeen, Thomas McNulty and his brother-in-arms, John Cole, go on to fight in the Indian wars and, ultimately, the Civil War.

Orphans of terrible hardships themselves, they find these days to be vivid and alive, despite the horrors they both see and are complicit in.

Moving from the plains of the West to Tennessee, Sebastian Barry's latest work is a masterpiece of atmosphere and language. Both an intensely poignant story of two men and the lives they are dealt, and a fresh look at some of the most fateful years in America's past, Days Without End is a novel never to be forgotten.


“John Cole was my love, all my love”

I have to be honest and admit that I’m somewhat at a loss as to what to write about this book. The only thing I’m sure about is that I’m intrigued by it for several reasons.

For starters there’s the way ‘Days Without End’ was written. Thomas McNulty is the narrator of this story and we get to hear it in his own, uneducated, voice. And there were moments when his voice drove me up the wall, irritated me. At times, the way in which the story unfolded felt like little more than a rendering of facts and the temptation to skim was almost irresistible. And then there were instances of such vibrant simplicity, that I found myself reading the same sentence or paragraph three or four times in a row, because I couldn’t get enough of it.

“You had to love John Cole for what he chose never to say.”

Reading this book was, to me, almost like reading two stories, the contrast between which was stark.

On one side there is Thomas and John’s military life, fighting both against Indians and in the Civil War. The descriptions of battles and slaughter are brutally honest and vivid, as are Thomas’s feelings about what they have to do.

“We wanted the enemy stilled and destroyed so that we could live ourselves.”

I wouldn’t have missed about half those battles and fights if they’d been left out; after a while they felt like overkill (pun intended). But a different reader may well find that aspect of the book fascinating. Just as other readers may feel less strongly than I did about the second storyline.

I however was mesmerized by the beautiful and understated story of the love between John and Thomas.

“And then we quietly fucked and then we slept.”

Because it is really ‘just’ a story of their love. They don’t encounter any problems. Not while they work as dancing ‘girls’ — when Thomas discovers that he prefers dresses and enjoys being Thomasina — not while they’re in the army, not when they take a young Indian girl under their wing, and not when they return to civilian life. Their love just is. And while the story does once or twice mention the need to be careful and secretive, Thomas and John are never in any danger as a result of their relationship. Used as I am to the MM romance arc, their story was almost anti-climatic and all the more refreshing for it.

Then again, maybe the book is a lot more than those two stories. Maybe it’s the totality of one man’s life; the good and the bad, the ugly and the beautiful, the brutal and the heartwarming. Thomas doesn’t hide who he is, what he has done, or how he felt about it. Not all of it is beautiful or honourable, but by the end of the book Thomas(ina) had nestled their way into my heart.

See what I mean when I say I don’t know what to say about this book, or how I feel about it?

I do however know that I love the title. ‘Days Without End’; those days when we were young and convinced we would live forever. The days we don’t appreciate until they’re long behind us.

“I am thinking of the days without end of my life. And it’s not like that now.”

Which brings me back to the language in which this book is written. It seems to me that there’s a beautiful conceit to this book. While the language appears to be ungrammatical and simple, this tale is filled with thoughts, observations and ideas that made me stop and think, such as this inspired little gem:

“A man’s memory might have only a hundred clear days in it and he has lived thousands. Can’t do much about that. We have our store of days and we spend them like forgetful drunkards.”

Or this one:
"His skin is made of the aftermath of smiles.”

So I guess I’ll give this book a very solid four stars. It was a bit too easy for me to put down to give it five stars. But I know without a doubt that this book, this story, and these characters will stay with me for a long time. And that counts for a lot.


  1. Thank you Helena. Your review makes me want to read this book. Love it when a book flummoxes an Author & Librarian! Love reading a living history.

    1. Who knew that my incoherent ramblings might inspire someone else to actually pickup a book? :) I hope you'll enjoy it, Ann.