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.

Kennedy’s Tudor series continues with The King’s Sisters

The King’s Sisters  is the third title in Sarah Kennedy’s series set in England during the time of King Henry VIII and his misfortunate wives.

Like a lot of readers, my interest in Tudor England began when I read Hilary Mantel. I carried Wolf Hall around for months unopened because I was expecting a literary read that might not be too entertaining. How wrong was I! Mantel quickly captured my interest and I couldn’t wait for the sequel, Bring Up The Bodies, another cracking read if you’ve not already discovered that for yourself.

So, starved for the want of Thomas Cromwell, and pending Mantel’s next instalment, I was fair game for Sarah Kennedy.

The King’s Sisters is the third title in Kennedy’s The Cross and The Crown series. The earlier novels are The Altarpiece and City of Ladies, neither of which I have read so far.

I confess to feeling somewhat lost in the early pages of this novel because I wasn’t sure who the characters were.  Although the cast and action were colourful and engrossing, I felt the need for more back story to understand what was going on. This probably would not have been a problem had I read the earlier two books.

What I like about The King’s Sisters is the intimacy and colour. Kennedy presents a largely female world. She creates a wide cast of credible female characters. There’s the King’s rejected wife, Lady Anne, now confined to a convent. Then there is his daughter, Mary, “more politician than her father could ever hope to be’. The menopausal Lady Byron and the widowed Catherine Overton are other key players. Overton, the main character, has a new relationship that drives the plot of The King’s Sisters.

An immersive read

More significant than character or plot, however, is the sense of place and time that Sarah Kennedy so skilfully creates. Reading The King’s Sisters is an immersive experience. You almost feel like you are in the room with the women of this novel. If you enjoy historical fiction, I think you’ll like this novel. But, I suggest that you take the time to read the earlier two titles in the series first.

[Disclosure: An ARC of The King’s Sisters by Sarah Kennedy was made available via Netgalley]

If you enjoyed The King’s Sisters, you might also like Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel.

Noonday by Pat Barker

Look for online images of London during the blitz and you immediately get a sense of the setting for Noonday by Pat Barker.

Darkness, death and destruction are everywhere. So, too, are images of people carrying on. They do their bit, recovering, rescuing, repairing and surviving.

Into this setting, Barker places three central characters that we first encountered in her earlier novels. Elinor Brooke, Paul Tarrant and Kit Neville appeared in Life Class and Toby’s Room.

These characters first met at the Slade School of Art before the outbreak of World War 1. They share a history in which Elinor’s brother, Toby, played a central part.

Autumn of 1940

Now, in Noonday, set during the autumn of 1940, art takes second place to duty. Elinor and Kit work as ambulance drivers while Paul is an air-raid warden. The novel opens with Elinor visiting her sister Rachel’s home in the country. There, their mother is dying. Rachel has taken in a boy, Kenny, who was evacuated from London. He is not an altogether welcome visitor in the house. We get glimpses of how uncomfortable his life is through his treatment by the servants.

Barker shows us, however, that Kenny’s life is better than that of many of his peers. It was not unusual for children to be selected by families because they looked strong enough to work.  Pretty girls were sometimes selected for more troubling reasons.


Kenny is homesick and wants to return to London and find his mother. When Elinor’s husband, Paul decides to help Kenny, it sets off a chain of events that drives the rest of the story. It’s Kenny that leads Paul to the psychic, Bertha Mason whose vision of the recently deceased not yet realising they are dead captures the chaotic aftermath of arbitrary destruction.

The relationships between Elinor, Paul and Kit remain complicated in Noonday. In the end though, this is not so much a novel of plot or character as it is a reflection on war’s impact on human nature which is territory Pat Barker always handles well.

[Disclosure: An advance review copy was made available by the publisher via Netgalley for the purpose of this review]

If you like Noonday, you might also like Toby’s Room by Pat Barker and A Long Long Way by Sebastian Barry.