Days without End by Sebastian Barry : A lyrical western

Last month, Days without End by Sebastian Barry won the 2016 Costa Novel Award.

It’s the story of two young men — Thomas McNulty and John Cole — who join the US army in the 1850s. They become cavalry men and fight in the Indian and American civil wars.

Their experiences are harsh, sometimes brutal, but the relationship that McNulty and Cole build sustains them through these hardships.

One particularly shocking scene describes the sacking of an Indian encampment.

Reading Days without End reminded me of the black & white westerns we watched on TV as children. They were stories about war, bravery, courage and betrayal. Tribal and human differences, conflict and peacemaking — sometimes savage,  sometimes scary, sometimes sentimental often showing both the worst and the best of men.

Barry previously won the Costa Book of the Year award in 2008 with The Secret Scripture, the story of elderly woman facing an uncertain future when the mental institution where she spent most of her life is threatened with closure.

A miracle of a book

The Costa Book Award judges describe Days without End as “A miracle of a book – both epic and intimate – that manages to create spaces for love and safety in the noise and chaos of history.”

Barry’s writing is mesmerising — rich, resonant, poignant and thought-provoking. While the action takes place  in the 1850s,  his themes have contemporary echoes.

McNulty’s crossing to America, for example — a consequence of the 1840s Irish Famine — calls to mind more recent refugee crises.

These contemporary parallels help to make Days without End a much more accessible read than, for example, Joseph O’Connor’s American civil war novel, Redemption Falls.  That said, I found Barry’s latest work a slower read than some of his earlier novels, but a satisfying one.

Faber & Faber publish Days without End by Sebastian Barry. I received an advance review copy through Netgalley.

If you like the sound of this book, you might also like The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry.

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