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.

The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty by Sebastian Barry

Sligo is such a beautiful place that it is not surprising it never leaves the soul of Eneas McNulty through all his long exile from his native land.

McNulty, a survivor of WWI, returns to Ireland to find little or no work. He decides to join the Royal Irish Constabulary — a decision that marginalises him from his childhood friends and ultimately drives him out of Ireland.

Sebastian Barry is a wonderful lyrical writer who touches on metaphysical themes and The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty is surely among his best books. Unbearably sad, when Eneas’s “songs and chattels” are reduced to nothing all that is left is bittersweet humanity.

Haunting, musical, profound.

See also: The Secret Scripture

On Canaan’s Side by Sebastian Barry

On Canaan’s Side opens with eighty-nine year old Lilly Dunne grieving for her grandson Bill who, having returned from war, has taken his own life.

Bill’s suicide is the latest in a series of losses endured by Lilly over her long life –a series that began with the death of her brother Willy who lost his life in World War I and whose story is told in another Barry novel, A Long, Long Way.

Over the seventeen days following the discovery of Bill’s body in a school toilet, Lilly reflects on her life — from her early days in Wicklow and Dublin where her father was a senior policeman based in Dublin Castle to her sudden flight from Ireland in the company of  Tadg Bere the reason behind her move to the United States — Canaan, the promised land — and the long, winding course that has led her to the moment where On Canaan’s Side opens as she grieves for her grandson and resolves to take her own life.

Part I of this novel focuses on the story of Lilly and Tadg Bere who are forced to leave Ireland when they discover that their names are on a ‘death list’ as a result of Tadg’s membership of the Black & Tans. Like so many Irish of their generation, they choose America as their promised land but for Lily and Tadg the menace of the death threat travels the Atlantic with them with desperate consequences.

Part II sees Lilly reflect on her friendship with Cassie and how, through Cassie, she met and married Joe Kinderman with whom she had a son, Ed. But Joe was a man with hidden secrets and we are not entirely surprised when we learn that he disappeared leaving Lilly to raise their son alone.

In Part III we discover that the old menace from Ireland still lurks in the shadows and, together with the long shades thrown by World War I and the early years of the Irish Free State, is perhaps one of the strongest determining forces of Lilly’s life.

On Canaan’s Side is a sensitively told story that is almost unbearably sad. As in an earlier Barry novel, The Secret Scripture, memory is an important theme and anyone who has ever had the care of an elderly relative will be moved by Lilly’s considered reflection on her life’s relationships and events. Barry is a skilled and gifted writer who draws you into the world he creates so that you keep on turning the pages even though you don’t want to get to the end of story. For me, On Canaan’s Side is one of his best.

On Canaan’s Side by Sebastian Barry is published by Faber & Faber. Paperback ISBN:9780571226542 Published:05.04.2012

I read the Kindle edition which I purchased on