Days Without End by Sebastian Barry

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Days Without End by Sebastian Barry

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: Beautiful and bloodthirsty western set in the 1850s and traversing both the American Indian Wars and the Civil War. A commanding and unforgettable reading experience.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 272 Date: October 2016
Publisher: Faber & Faber
ISBN: 0571277004

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Shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction 2017

Longlisted for the 2017 Man Booker Prize

Days Without End continues Sebastian Barry's tracing of Irish families the Dunnes and the McNultys over generations and settings. In Days Without End he explores the cultural relationship between Ireland and the United States to devastating effect.

It's the mid-nineteenth century and Thomas McNulty has left his home in Sligo, his family dead from famine, to make a new life in a new nation. He teams up with prairie fairy - a dancer in drag - John Cole and together they sign up for the US Army. Their journey will take them through the American Indian wars and eventually to the Civil War. Along the way, the two soldiers form a lasting bond with a young Sioux girl called Winona and their travels take them from Missouri to Wyoming and Tennessee. It's the story of perhaps the most violent birth of a nation in history but it's also a convention-defying love story.

I don't want to say too much more because Days Without End is a book you should experience and not be told too much about beforehand.

It is a commanding and unforgettable read. It is brutal and bloody but it is also beautiful. Nobody is good and nobody is evil. But everybody is good and everybody is evil. And I think this was the lasting impression I was left with: the seeds of extreme good and extreme evil lie inside all of us and, in tumultuous times like the birth of a nation, both flourish. Barry's characters all display this duality as they love with piercing sweetness and commit acts of unspeakable cruelty. It's frighteningly truthful and it leaves you feeling almost punch drunk. On finishing, I felt as though I had been reading for months and yet it's eminently readable, often funny, and the whole thing comes in at under three hundred pages and I'd finished it in an afternoon. I think that says something.

It's beautifully written in lyrical and precise prose. Sometimes a little arch and over-clever, perhaps, but this minor nitpick is overwhelmed by the savage beauty of it all. You can't review a western without mention Cormac McCarthy and Larry McMurtry. Days Without End is like both and like neither. And it will stand alongside works by both authors as a classic of the genre. It's vivid and exciting and moving. It's both sweeping and intimate. And it will stay with me for a long time.

You might also enjoy The Son by Philipp Meyer, a sweeping Western saga about one Texas family – ranging from the 1840s to the present day – which brims with violence and philosophical tension.

This book featured in our February 2017 Newsletter.

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