Days Without End by Sebastian Barry

Days Without End by Sebastian Barry

4.03  ·  Rating details ·  6,116 Ratings  ·  1,052 Reviews
From the two-time Man Booker Prize finalist Sebastian Barry, “a master storyteller” (Wall Street Journal), comes a powerful new novel of duty and family set against the American Indian and Civil Wars.

Thomas McNulty, aged barely seventeen and having fled the Great Famine in Ireland, signs up for the U.S. Army in the 1850s. With his brother in arms, John Cole, Thomas goes on to fight in the Indian Wars—against the Sioux and the Yurok—and, ultimately, the Civil War. Orphans of terrible hardships themselves, the men find these days to be vivid and alive, despite the horrors they see and are complicit in.

Moving from the plains of Wyoming to Tennessee, Sebastian Barry’s latest work is a masterpiece of atmosphere and language. An intensely poignant story of two men and the makeshift family they create with a young Sioux girl, Winona, Days Without End is a fresh and haunting portrait of the most fateful years in American history and is a novel never to be forgotten.


My friend Wyndy recommended this book to me, and in her own review said that she didn't write well enough to do justice to this book. The truth is that no one does. It contains worlds, but at it's heart is the story of 3 people coming together to make a family. It is told through the eyes and in the words of Thomas McNulty, and his language carries you away like a river. I give you some of his words:

"We were two wood-shavings of humanity in a rough world."

" Man, we was so clean and nice, I wished I could have met myself. "

"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. I ain't got no argument with it, just saying it is so."

" There's old sorrow in your blood like second nature and new sorrow that maddens the halls of sense. Causes an uproar there. "

"Killing hurts the heart and soils the soul."

"In my exaltation I forget I ain't got a bean of money but it don't concern me and I know I can rely on the kindness of folk along the way. The ones that don't try to rob me will feed me. That's how it is in America. I never felt such joy of heart as in those days traipsing southward. "

I could give you many more because honestly, every sentence in this novel sparkles with beauty at the same time it grabs you by the throat. An unbelievable tale of the building of America, and how, in the end, love really is the only thing that matters.
Sometimes you know you ain't a clever man. But likewise sometimes the fog of usual thoughts clears off in a sudden breeze of sense and you see things clear a moment like a clearing country. We blunder through and call it wisdom but it ain't. They say we be Christians and suchlike but we ain't. They say we are creatures raised by God above the animals but any man that has lived knows that's damned lies.

Days Without End is extremely well-written historical fiction that overall left me admiring the prose and language far more than enjoying the somewhat improbable circumstances and unfolding events of the novel. This was my first time reading Sebastian Barry, and his talent to turn a phrase and paint with words vivid descriptions all in the voice of a singular character is incredible. I felt a bit removed though from the proceedings: even though I believed the emotions and ideas described, I myself was not invested in the outcome, mainly because the ending felt inevitable and a bit predictable (if not also sentimental and satisfying). But I thoroughly loved the writing: the descriptions, dialogue, and reflections on war and brutality and suffering and friendship were so grounded in reality and yet elevated to almost poetry in terms of the beauty. I'd probably give this 3.5 stars, but rounded up to 4 for its overall literary excellence, even if I wasn't emotionally connected or drawn into the characters and events to the same extent as I was hooked on the craft.

I may continue to flesh out this review as I let this full story digest with me, but for now, I would recommend this to readers of literary and historical fiction with interest in the American West and Civil War, who embrace a somewhat slow tale in which the writing holds more attention than the events.
Sebastian Barry’s “Days Without End” was a bit reminiscent to me of the strange travels in “News of the World” with writing that reminded me of my grandfather’s reading to me of Walt Whitman. Not that I haven’t read Whitman on my own, but I only hear it anymore in my grandfather’s voice.

There’s a lovely, if somber, touch to the writing, with prose that sings the song of every man.

“We were two wood-shavings of humanity in a rough world.”

This story is narrated by a young Thomas McNulty, a youth who fled Ireland during the time of the Great Famine, came to America, and after many years surviving as a dancer in a saloon along with his then new-found friend John Cole, they volunteered and joined the Army when he was seventeen, or thereabouts, in Missouri.

”If you had all your limbs they took you. If you were a one-eyed boy they might take you too even so. The only pay worse than the worst pay in America was army pay.”

“ Yes, the army took me, I’m proud to say. Thank God John Cole was my first friend in America and so in the army too and the last friend for that matter. He was with me nearly all through this exceeding surprising Yankee sort of life which was good going in every way. No more than a boy like me but even at sixteen years old he looked like a man right enough. I first saw him when he was fourteen or so, very different. That’s what the saloon owner said too.”

They go off, at first, to fight the Indian Wars against the Sioux and the Yurok, and then later, the Civil War. Between those two wars, they bring an eight year-old Sioux girl to live with them. A girl that Mrs. Neale, the Major’s wife, had been teaching, she had learned English and her letters and numbers, along with some cooking skills. Still, Mrs. Neale only agrees to allow this after Thomas assures her that they only want this girl for a servant and not for “their own solace,” and he promises to protect her as his own child. They call her Winona, and from thereon she is known as John Cole’s daughter in a legal sense, but in reality they view her as nothing less than their daughter.

” I guess it’s long ago now. Seems to sit right up in front of my eyes just now though.”

Time. The passage of time is one of the details of life he often reflects on.

”Time was not something then we thought of as an item that possessed an ending, but something that would go on forever, 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.”

Nature is another object of his reflections. Life in the war and after, the endless nights of sleeping in cold so bitter and deep it could take your life. Days and nights so hot you could barely breathe. The land. The sky viewed as if it were a painting.

”Now in these different districts, the sun came up that bit earlier, more eagerly, more like the baker putting fire into his bread oven, in the small hours, so the women in the town would have bread bright early. Lord, that sun rose regular and sere, he didn’t care who saw him, naked and round and white. Then the rains came walking over the land, as exciting the new grasses, thundering down, hammering like fearsome little bullets, making the shards and dusts of the earth dance a violent jig. Making the grass seeds drunk with ambition. Then the sun pouring in after the rain, and the wide endless prairie steaming, a vast and endless vista of white steam rising, and the flocks of birds wheeling and turning, a million birds to one cloud, we’d a needed a blunderbuss to harvest them, small black fleet wondrous birds.”

Life, what comprises a life at the end of it, the things we recall when stripped down to the days when our breaths can be counted.

”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.”

War is brutal, gloomy, dark and disturbing, and yet this book couldn’t be more poetic, more powerful, more remarkable, more captivating, more of a pleasure to read, or just plain lovelier.
This is the first book I have read that is new enough to qualify for this year's Booker prize, and it sets the bar pretty high. This is a wild picaresque fantasy set in nineteenth century America, and is very different to any of Barry's previous novels, all of which are much closer to modern Ireland. This time the narrator Thomas, another member of the Sligo McNulty family, is a poor Irish boy who has lost his family to the potato famine and has found his way across the Atlantic.

Thomas meets John Cole, a slightly older American born drifter when they are sheltering from rain under a hedge. It soon becomes clear that this is more than just a simple friendship. Their first job is dressing up as girls to act as hired dancers in a mid-Western town. When this work reaches its natural end because John is too big, they enlist in the army and are involved in various skirmishes with the local Indians (it seems wrong to use the term native Americans in this 19th century context). After one of these, Thomas and John find themselves adopting a girl who was the niece of the local chief, and they leave the army to start a new life as entertainers in Grand Rapids, a mining town, but are soon persuaded to rejoin the Army when the civil war breaks out. The remainder of the book follows their escapades after the war.

As in his earlier book A Long Long Way, Barry describes war in chaotic and unsentimental detail, but the farcical elements of this story are never far from the surface. McNulty's voice is a wonderful hybrid, probably too literate to be plausible, but that seems a necessary artifice and makes the story much more readable. The plot stretches credulity at times, but has some lovely twists, and this makes for a very satisfying read. This might just be Barry's best book yet, and is certainly the most audacious.
     "Things just go on. Lot of life is just like that. I look back over fifty years of life and I wonder where the years went. I guess they went like that, without me noticing much. 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. I ain’t got no argument with it, just saying it is so."

What an absolutely beautiful story. And believe me, I never thought I'd find myself saying that about a Civil War-era novel. I'm not particularly one for war stories in general. If I read one I'm much more interested in looking at how civilian life is affected by war and the ways in which people cope with that disruption of everyday life, so I usually stay away from battlefront narratives.

But this book is so much more than a war story.

First and foremost, it's about a man named Thomas McNulty who's emigrated from Ireland and made his way to the U.S. during the American Indian wars, especially ones on the Great Plains. Then it moves into the Civil War-era where he finds himself once again at war fighting for the Union. Along the way he's accompanied by John Cole, his best friend and secret lover. (The blurb doesn't really highlight their romance, but it's very clear in the story, though not really a main plot—just a fact.) Later on they take in a young Native American girl who becomes like their daughter. The three of them go through many adventures over the span of many years.

Things I loved about this book:

-The writing style: It took a bit of getting used to because it's written in a very conversational style, often with improper grammar. But wow. Barry is a master at this style. After a while I barely noticed it, and instead felt like Thomas was speaking directly to me.

-The characters: Though I do wish we had gotten to see a bit more of John, overall all the characters were extremely realistic, even the side characters in the army that we only saw for bits and pieces of the story. I was completely invested in their lives, and it was really this that kept me reading when the plot wasn't as exciting.

-The length: This isn't a long book, and I feel like Barry could've made it twice as long, filled it with even more events over the years, and probably could've gotten away with it. But it's brevity serves the story well. It was amazing what he could do to emotionally stir up the reader in such a short span of time.

Though you can see I thought this book was phenomenal, I am positive there will be people who read this and go..."huh?" It's not for every reader. But it was perfect for me. And again, I'm thankful that books like this were put on the Man Booker longlist because I might otherwise never gotten around to reading it.
Days Without End is an impressively constructed first person narrative. Barry does a nice job of utilizing language one would expect to hear in 19th century America. I was struck by the author's ability to develop characters through the eyes of our narrator, Thomas McNulty. This method obviously differs from third person narratives that allow characters to be constructed through multiple points of view, but Barry's method lent this novel an air of authenticity.

This novel also packs a lot of punch in a mere 259 pages. A lot of ground is covered- literally and figuratively- as our lead characters fight in the Indian Wars and Civil War. I can't decide if the novel's brevity is a positive or if it would be better served with another couple hundred pages. As is, a lot of events occur almost too quickly. Three years of Civil War experiences are covered in less than one hundred pages. I suppose the fact that I wanted the novel to be longer attests to my high opinion of the writing.

Very worthy of being long-listed for the Man Booker.

"What crazy war is this? What world we making? We don't know. I guess whatever world it is is ending."
It’s a bittersweet feeling to finish a book that’s had me in such a hold for these last few days. I am delighted to have read it but I’m already missing that world and the people in it… most particularly Thomas McNulty. As wonderful a narrator as I’ve come across in months.

I’ve read a great deal of books in differing styles, and somehow it still surprises me when I come across something so inimitable as this. What gives this book it’s individuality, in my opinion, is Thomas’s voice. He’s such an amalgam of resilience, determination, gentleness and courage. Above all, he’s honest with himself about his true nature, a man ahead of his time.

In this story you’ll find violence and cruelty, apropos to the time period and setting, but you’ll also find family, love, and loyalty in abundance. I guess I can’t describe it any better than that, except to say that I frequently ran the gamut of emotions within just a couple of chapters. The rest is for you to discover; this book truly speaks for itself.
'Days Without End' by Sebastian Barry

5 stars/ 10 out of 10

I have read several of Sebastian Barry's earlier books (my favourite of which is 'The Secret Scripture'), so I was very interested in reading this latest novel of his.

This novel is a first person narrative told by Thomas McNulty, who came over to the USA from Ireland as a child, during the Famines. It tells of his life as a soldier in both the Indian Wars and the Civil War, and after.

The period covered by the novel is a period in North American history of which I only have a sketchy knowledge. One of the things that I like about Barry's writing, is that I feel confident that he is historically accurate. So I don't feel the need to question these aspects of the narrative.

It was a slow read, but in a good way. The story was very detailed, and the back and forward stories of the main characters were revealed as the story developed. There were many moments of surprise for me along the way.

The language was so beautiful, that I wanted to savour it. The only slight niggle I had occasionally was, as to whether the narrator, Thomas McNulty, would, in reality, have talked in such poetic language. I'm guessing that Barry's answer to this would be that there is poetry in all of us. Whilst I am reading his work, he convinces me of this. Barry's great skill as a writer is to show to the reader, the nuances and subtleties that there are in all of humanity.

I thought this was an excellent novel, and is one that I look forward to re-reading at some stage.
Has an Irishman written the Great American Novel? The question is not theoretical; Sebastian Barry’s latest novel is the fourth time he has been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. The novel is his seventh, but it is Barry’s long experience writing for the theatre—thirteen plays already—that lends excitement to this work. After the years of excellent effort, suddenly Thomas Thomasina McNulty springs full-grown from Barry’s well-tilled field. The extraordinary success of this gem of a novel set in 1850’s America is all about preparedness and inspiration.

The novel is not long but is fluent and unstrained; it makes big statements about human existence, war, love, about what we want, and what we get. It is remarkable how squarely Barry lands in the middle of the American debate so clamorous around us now, about race, diversity, sexuality, what we fight for and who fights for us—questions we’ve never satisfactorily answered, and so they are back again.

Barry gives us humor in a horribly violent world, surprising and delighting us with his deadpan delivery. His diverse cast of characters are reliant on one another, all viewed through the eyes of an Irishman who’d suffered such terrible deprivations as a child that man’s cruelty never surprised him. What did surprise him was that we could find a way to love, to happiness, despite our sorrows.

In the early pages Thomas McNulty meets John Cole under a hedge in a rainstorm. John Cole is a few years older, but both the orphaned young boys is a wild thing, having ‘growed' in the school of hard knocks. Uncanny judges of character, they almost instantly decide they stand a better chance together in the rough-and-tumble than alone and set off on a series of adventures. The pace of the novel is swift. When I go back to find a memorable passage, I am shocked at how quickly events unfolded, and how quickly I am deeply involved.

The language is one of the novel's wonders. Barry doesn’t try to hide his brogue, but uses it: a stranger in a strange land. That distance and perspective allows Thomas to make comment upon what is commonly observed

    "Everything bad gets shot in America, says John Cole, and everything good too."


    "I know I can rely on the kindness of folk along the way. The ones that don’t try to rob me will feed me. That how it is in America."

The novel constantly surprises: when the boys answer the ad hung awry on a saloon door in a broken-down Kansas town, “Clean Boys Wanted,” we prepare for the worst. Within pages we are jolly and laughing, then agonized and pained, then back again, our emotions rocketing despite the tamped-down telling. Our initial sense of extreme danger never really leaves us, but serves to prepare us for the Indian wars, those pitiful, personal slaughters, and the Civil War, which comes soon enough.

The most remarkable bits of this novel, the sense of a shared humanity within a wide diversity, seemed so natural and obvious and wonderful we wanted to crawl under that umbrella and shelter there. These fierce fighting men fought for each other rather than for an ideal. Their early lives were so precarious they’d formed alliances across race, religion, national origin when they were treated fair. “Don’t tell me a Irish is an example of civilised humanity…you‘re talking to two when you talk to one Irishman.”

And then there is the notion of time, if it is perceived at all by youth: “Time was not something then we thought of as an item that possessed an ending…” By the end of the novel, the characters do indeed perceive time: “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.” We have been changed, too, because we also perceive time, and sorrow and pain and those things that constitute joy. We have lived his life, and ours, too.

Barry gets so much right about the America he describes: the sun coming up earlier and earlier as one travels east, the desert-but-not-desert plains land, the generosity and occasional cooperation between the Indian tribes and the army come to dispatch them, the crazy deep thoughtless racism. But what made me catch my breath with wonder was the naturalness of the union between Thomasina McNulty and John Cole and the fierceness of the love these two army men had for an orphaned, laughing, high-spirited, bright star of an Indian girl they called Winona.

Barry understands absolutely that our diversity makes us stronger, better men. Leave the pinched and hateful exclusion of differentness to sectarian tribes, fighting for the old days. We know what the old days were like. We can do better. I haven’t read all the Man Booker longlist yet, but most, and this is at the top of my list. It is a treasure.

I had access to the Viking Penguin hardcopy of this novel--I'm still surprised at how small it is, given the expansive nature of the story--but I also had the audio from Hoopla. I needed both: the pace of the novel is swift, and may cause us to read faster than we ought. Barry writes poetically, which by rights should slow us down. The Blackstone Audio production, though read quickly by Aidan Kelly, allows us to catch things we will have missed in print and vice versa. At several stages in this novel, crises impel us forward. As we rush to see what happens, we may miss the beauty. Don't miss the beauty. Books like these are so very rare.
"Things that give you heart are rare enough, better note them in your head when you find them and not forget."

DAYS WITHOUT END is the latest entry from Sebastian Barry in his loose, multi-generational McNulty family series, and it's his best one yet. With this one, he takes us to a completely different time and place: the American West, the Indian Wars, and the Civil War. It's a surprising and wholly original take on men in wartime.

There is harrowing violence and suffering: battlefields, massacres, a POW camp, famine in Ireland (and hellishness on ships escaping from it). But there's no sentimentality, and few false notes in Barry's descriptions. His characters are honest and true, and full of real-life contradictions. Good people do some very bad things. In his depiction of war, we see heroism and cowardice, stupidity and wisdom, terror and exhilaration, brutality and compassion. Mostly these soldiers just get on with it: "Nothing too tricky about dying for your country. It's the easiest item on the menu."

Barry's novel has received some attention for its depiction of homosexuality and cross-dressing among American soldiers. (I hope that's not a spoiler; it's revealed very early in the book.) But for all the fuss about that, the book is really about so much more. It's about love and compassion in the toughest of circumstances. Yes, there's romantic love . . . but also parental love, platonic love, and the unique bonds that men in combat share with each other. And it's also a fresh and important take on the Irish experience in America.

As powerful as Barry's story is, his economy is even more striking. He seems to have packed a whole world into this slender novel.

The story is tough and tender in equal measure. It's also witty and funny. I'm not sure I've read anything quite like it. It's a truly unique and unsettling work of fiction. Barry's prose is clean and lovely, and the first-person narration is pitch-perfect. He has captured the voice of Thomas McNulty just so.

"Time was not something then we thought of as an item that possessed an ending, but something that would go on forever, all rested and stopped in that moment. . . . 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. . . . I am wondering what words we said so carelessly that night, what vigorous nonsense we spoke, what drunken shouts we shouted, what stupid joy there was in that, and how John Cole was only young then and as handsome as any person that has ever lived. Young, and there would never be a change for that. The heart rising, and the soul singing."

This extraordinary novel gave me heart, and I won't forget it.

Here's a glass raised to Sebastian Barry and his McNulty family. I hope there are many more of their stories to come.
I love, love this book! Days Without End is one of the finest books I have ever had the pleasure of reading. (I’ve luckily been able to say this twice this year!)

Winner of the Costa Book Award, this historical fiction is about two young Irish men leaving the great famine behind to come to America. Thomas McNulty, in the first narrative, takes us through American history with his best friend and partner, John Cole, by joining the Army to make a living. A violently written novel, the author, Sebastian Barry, vividly portrays the US Indian wars and the Civil War. His two main characters are the finest of mankind. Two people you would love to count as friends. Fighting men as brave as they come, but also fiercely loyal and kind-hearted.

What a joy to listen to the Irish brogue of Aidan Kelly. I am thankful to have decided on the audiobook. The writing had me looking through the eyes of McNulty like I was there throughout their hardships and adventures.

Unbeknownst to me, Sebastian Barry is an Irish poet, playwright, and novelist. Days Without End shows his poetic influence. Just beautifully written. I will most certainly be reading more of his books.

Highly recommend.
5 out of 5 stars.

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