Days without End by Sebastian Barry

I never thought I would like a book about army life, about brutal battles and vivid descriptions of the atrocities of war, but this book was one of the best I’ve read in a long time. Please don’t be put off by my first sentence; this book is worth reading for the quality of Barry’s writing alone, as well as the extraordinary story that he tells, that of two gay men in the US army in the 1850s and into the American Civil War.

Days without end

The book is narrated by Thomas McNulty, an Irishman who fled to America aged 13 after his family had literally starved to death in Ireland. Thomas talks to us throughout this novel in the conversational tone of one without much education, but with a wisdom of having lived a hard life. He is matter-of-fact, without self-pity. He said that when he arrived in America with others on a ship, “The point is, we were nothing … We were a plague. We were only rats of people. Hunger takes away what you are.” Thomas left the horrors of a starving Ireland but came to the New World to encounter a harsh reality of expansionism in which indigenous people were being slaughtered.

Existing on virtually no food and living in rags, Thomas met a boy called John Cole, who was equally hungry and ragged. A friendship starts and almost right away, Thomas “felt like a human being again“. The boys searched for work and ended up in a mining town, working as dancers dressed up in women’s clothing to entertain the miners. There is nothing sexual about this; they danced for the miners:

Maybe we were like memories of elsewhere. Maybe we were the girls of their youth, the girls they had first loved. Man, we was so clean and nice, I wished I could of met myself.”

But the boys grew into men and could no longer pass for pretty dancing girls, and so at 17 joined the army, a hard life but one that gave them food, clothes and a horse each. Most of the fighting was against Native Americans (Indians), a horrific ethnic cleansing with brutal, physical battles, but Thomas plainly explains his and John’s behaviour:

“…. I don’t think anything can be properly understood. How we were able to see slaughter without flinching. Because we were nothing ourselves, to begin with. We knew what to do with nothing, we were at home there.

soldiers

Much of the novel is about the army, the horrendous hardships the soldiers go through, not only with the fighting but also the hostile countryside and weather conditions. On reading about this life, I wondered how on earth anyone ever survived it, but Thomas and John did, and throughout the novel, the story of their love is woven, a beautifully quiet and tender love story that seems at odds with the setting.

Barry’s handling of this gay relationship is so masterfully accomplished that it moves through the story without appearing fantastical, for it is almost unreal – two men in love in an overtly masculine military context where lives don’t count for anything. I didn’t cotton on to the gay aspect of the relationship until, early on in the book, in between descriptions of the army and base camp, Barry throws in the sentence:

And then we quietly fucked and then we slept.

Barry challenges the readers with questions of identity as these men are gay, yet they remain loyal to their army compatriots. They are tender with each other, yet they kill when necessary. Barry stretches us even further when John and Thomas marry secretly and, when John leaves the army and Thomas runs away, Thomas lives for a while as Thomasina, finally dressing in women’s clothing as he had always wished to. He is feminine, yet remains masculine in his attitude to war and the army to which he has to return. And more for the reader to ingest – John adopts a Sioux girl after a raid on an Indian camp in which all the adults were slaughtered, and so the three of them live as a family for a while, happily. It all sounds strange, but Barry makes it come alive and treats the subject in a delicate and open-hearted manner.

This book was inspired in part by Barry’s son, Toby, who came out a couple of years before the book was written. In an interview with The Guardian, Barry said: From that moment on we (his son and Barry) entered into this extraordinary period where he was instructing me in the magic of gay life.” 

Barry listened and absorbed everything his son told him about gay love, cross-dressing and wove it into his novel:

“I was very impressed by the subtlety, the delicacy and the intricacy of the love between Toby and his boyfriend. People talk about tolerance, but it’s not really about tolerance. It should also be about emulation and reverence and learning from.” 

This novel can be read on many levels – a story about war, a description of life in the US army in the mid-19th century, a love story. It is a book about identity, patriotism, and friendship; fear and fervour, ugliness and strange beauty; it is bitter-sweet. It is a book written with such beautiful sentences that a dreamlike quality is evoked even in the most awful scenes; I found myself going back and re-reading battle scenes, because of the imagery that Barry uses; I found myself reading too quickly, compelled to find out what happens to Thomas and John, and I found myself almost unbearably moved by the love they had for each other.

I thought Barry’s books were good before this one, but now I believe him to be a truly great writer. I will read this book again and read it more slowly next time.

Barry

Reference:

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/feb/01/sebastian-barry-costa-book-award-2017-days-without-end-interview-gay-son

 

The Girl in the Picture by Denise Chong

One of the most famous photographs in the world adorns the cover of this book – a young girl running, naked, her face contorted in pain and fear as the blast of napalm highlights the background.

Kim Phuc

This was Kim Phuc, a nine-year-old South Vietnamese girl whose village was bombed in a misplaced air attack, and this is the story of her life from before the attack until she’s living in Canada after defecting with her husband. It is also a story about the futility and horror of war, and the effects of war on countries, communities, families and individuals.

book

Nick Ut, an Associated Press photographer, is the man who took the famous photo and, at the same time, was one of Kim’s rescuers. Ut, soldiers and another journalist stopped Kim as she ran past screaming – her skin was bubbling and peeling, chunks of flesh falling off. She radiated heat. At the request of Kim’s father, Ut stalled his deadline (despite having a gut feeling that his was a sensational photo) and took her to hospital, an act which  saved Kim’s life.

Kim remained in hospital for months before returning home, and going back to school. Her back was severely scarred from 3rd degree burns, and she was to live in hideous pain and with excruciating headaches for her whole life. She could have  slipped into anonymity if it hadn’t been for a German photographer who tracked her down and alerted her presence to the authorities in Hanoi. For years afterward, Kim was used for propaganda purposes by the government.

In 1986, she was sent to Cuba to study and further the ‘Communist cause’. She attended the University of Havana, where she met and married another Vietnamese student. In 1992, they defected to Canada where they have lived ever since. She reconnected with Nick Ut and has become a Christian, a faith which she says has helped her cope with bitterness and the pain.

Grownup

 

The above is merely a brief summary of Kim’s remarkable life, however the book is so much more than that. It also focuses on the Vietnam war in general. I found it interesting to read about the war from the Vietnamese side – in fact, to read about the war in general, as I don’t know much about it – and to see how that famous photo changed attitudes towards the war. Chong writes in a very accessible style and moves easily between the intimate details of Kim’s life and a portrait of Vietnamese society during and after the war. I highly recommend the book.

Postscript: In Miami in September 2015, Kim started a course of laser treatment that hopefully should smooth and soften the thick scar tissue that runs down her back and left arm, in the hope that it will help with the chronic pain that Kim lives with: Kim Phuc laser treatments

 

 

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

I had been warned that this book was terribly gruesome and harrowing and that made me hesitate to read it. I should remember not to be put off by other people’s warnings and only make my judgement once I have started reading a book – this is an incredible novel. It won the Man Booker Prize last year and the chair of the judges, AC Grayling, said: “Some years, very good books win the Man Booker Prize, but this year a masterpiece has won it.”Cover 1

Yes, it is hugely harrowing and people who lived through World War Two, or those who cannot face brutality, may well not want to read it, being about Australian prisoners of war who worked on the infamous Thailand-Burma Death Railway. At times I had to take breaks from reading about the abuse suffered at the hands of the Japanese; it is told in horrifyingly graphic detail with no description spared, yet I feel it is important to know all this to understand the depth of the novel and, if nothing else, for the reader to know the realities of what went on in that part of the war.

Simply put, this is a novel about war and love, yet it’s also about good and evil, about power and submission, and about cowardice and bravery. The protagonist of the book is a man called Dorrigo Evans, a doctor who enlists at the beginning of WWII and whose unit surrenders to the Japanese in Java. As a colonel and a surgeon, Dorrigo becomes the leader of the prisoners and is hailed after the war for his bravery, becoming a famous war hero. He tries as best he can in the camps to look after his men, often intervening with the Japanese generals.

POW

Dorrigo is a flawed hero; a reluctant leader, he often feels he has no place to be the one to have been put in that position in the camp, and he is a man deeply in love with his uncle’s wife, with whom he had an affair before the outbreak of the war. His love affair with Amy haunts him constantly. Dorrigo marries after the war, knowing he does not love Ella, and spends the rest of his life in a suspended state of reality, unable to feel anything at a meaningful depth.

Flanagan shows us the lives of those soldiers who survived the war, the hopelessness that pervades their lives and the effects of what would now be called post-traumatic stress. He also takes us into the minds of the Japanese generals after the war and we see the justifications made by them for their behaviour, believing what they did was simply in service of the Emperor and the greatness of Japan, although they fear reprisals.

Flanagan skilfully takes the reader backwards and forwards in the book, from the war camp to Dorrigo’s childhood, to the camps and back to his love affair, from his marriage to his post-war empty life – it kept my mind sharp but never confused me. His writing is beautiful, even when he writes about the utter horrors of the war camp, and I spent most the book feeling haunted by his words; still do, in fact.

I feel I have barely touched the surface of this novel, it’s one I need to go back to and read again to appreciate Flanagan’s expert handling of the story. I have also barely touch the surface here in this review; there is so much more complexity to the novel, such as the poetry taken from a 17th-century Japanese poet called Basho (the title comes from one of his haikus).

Flanagan

I would warn anyone wanting to read it that this is a book of brutally graphic descriptions of cruelty and suffering, yet that they would miss out on a masterpiece if they don’t.