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 Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

The Sense of an Ending won the Man Booker Prize in 2011 and is an exquisitely written short novel. It also has the most beautiful cover I’ve seen in a book for a long time – dandelions flying in the wind and pages with black stained edges.

Julian Barnes is at the peak of his talent as a writer. This is an incredibly well-crafted book, written with precision where not one word is superfluous. It is a book about memory, the malleability of memory, and how different people remember the same events differently. It is about time and how time affects memories.

Tony Webster is the main character – he is retired, divorced, he gets on well enough with his daughter and listens to classical music. He’s a boring man, really, and not particularly likable in my mind.  He’s had a good career and gets on well with his ex-wife. He is, in his words, a “peaceable” man; in others’ words, a coward. The book starts with a list of some of his memories: “a shiny, inner wrist, …. gouts of sperm circling a plughole … bathwater long gone cold behind a locked door.” Of memories, he says “…what you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed,” a statement that encapsulates theme of the book.

An unexpected letter arrives for him one day  and this forces him to go back in his mind to his school days, when he met Adrian Finn for the first time. Adrian joins Tony’s tight clique of friends: himself, Colin and Alex. “Adrian allowed himself to be absorbed into our group, without acknowledging that it was something he sought. Perhaps he didn’t.” Adrian is part of the group, yet remains an individual – clever, musical, philosophical, ‘essentially serious unless he was taking the piss’.

I love Julian Barnes’ descriptions – he refers to the three boys as seeing school sports as being ‘a crypto-fascist plan for repressing our sex-drive’. He describes them as being ‘book-hungry, sex-hungry, meritocratic, anarchistic’. At times I found this book to be funny, something I didn’t expect.

After school, they drift to different universities and keep in touch with the occasional letter. Tony goes to Bristol University and falls in love with Veronica Ford, whose ‘sexual policy’ is to go so far and then say, ‘It doesn’t feel right’. She is a manipulative character, who takes Tony home one weekend only to leave him to the mercy of his scathing father and mean brother. I squirmed reading that section of the book. Only her mother treats him kindly and warns him not to let Veronica get away with too much. He and Veronica drift along in their relationship, until Veronica confronts him on the future of his relationship – Tony is unable to commit, nor can he put words to his feelings, and so they break up. However, he does tell us that after they broke up, they slept together. He remembers it as being  mutual decision; she remembers it as being practically a rape.

Julian Barnes

He tells us how sometime after that he receives a letter from Adrian telling him that he and Veronica are going out together. Tony remembers sending a letter back to him: ‘I told him pretty much what I thought of their joint moral scruples. I also advised him to be prudent, because …. Veronica had suffered damage a long way back.’

When Tony finishes university, he goes to America and travels around, doing odd jobs. When he gets home six months later, however, he is confronted with the news that Adrian has committed suicide, cut his wrists in the bath and bled to death, but that Adrian had been happy and ‘in love’ when he died.

Tony’s story fast-forwards through his marriage, career, divorce and children until we are at the time of his telling us the story of his memories, all sparked by a lawyer’s letter he receives out the blue, in which he is told that he had been left 500 pounds and  two documents by a Veronica’s mother. The one document is a fragment of a page on which his friend from school, Adrian, had written, but which has no conclusion as the next page is missing. The other document is Adrian’s diary, except it isn’t given to Tony because Veronica still has it.

This reconnects Tony to Veronica as he wishes to get the diary from her. She is extremely reluctant to see him again, she won’t hand over the diary. She is nasty, rude and bitter towards him and yet Tony fantasises about their getting together again. She gives him the letter that he wrote her and Adrian all those years ago when they told him they were going out – it is hideous, vicious, bitter and wishes bad luck upon them. It made me, as the reader, dislike Tony intensely. She also, during their present-time meetings, keeps telling Tony that he just ‘doesn’t get it’.

As a reader, I didn’t understand what Tony was supposed to be getting and here is where the book became frustrating and exasperating – though still intriguing. I have encountered people who have found the end of the book irritating and senseless, but there is a twist to this story that kept me thinking about the book for ages afterwards. I had to go back and read it again to see what clues I had missed, what is was that gives the story the ‘sense of an ending’.

This is a novella, it is a quick read, but one I won’t forget in a long time and one that will keep me discussing the twist with friends for ages to come. I’m not going to give a hint of what it might be, but my advice is that you read the book again once you have finished it and, if you are still curious, go onto the internet to read some fascinating discussions about it.