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

 

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Gold by Chris Cleave

I looked forward to reading this book because I had so enjoyed Chris Cleave’s previous novels, Incendiary and Little Bee (called On The Other Hand in England). They were what I call ‘delicious’ books, ones I don’t want to put down with characters that I wanted to get to know.

ImageHis new novel, Gold, did not do that to me. I completed it and enjoyed it in a light-hearted sort of way with flashes of irritation. On the surface, it’s a book about Olympic cycling (the kind that goes round and round a track getting faster and faster). It is also about friendships, suffering, conflict, love – big issues that Cleave has written about so well in his previous novels.

The two main characters are Zoe and Kate, rivals who have become friends who are both going to go to the 2012 Olympics in London to represent Britain. Zoe is single, driven to the point of recklessness,  a smoker and drinker, one of those spiky sort of people you wonder why anyone likes her. Kate is married to Jack, also an Olympic cyclist, who is good-looking and causes Kate to wonder why he even likes her. They have a daughter who has leukaemia  and we get to know her mainly through her obsession with Star Wars (a narrative device which generally works though it did become tedious now and then). 

Neither character is particularly well depicted, although they are well stereotyped. Zoe is the bad one, a loner although obviously a sensitive soul, and Kate is the good one who has sacrificed a great deal for her daughter. It is quite unfathomable to me how Kate every gets time to train while looking after a gravely ill child, however, she seems to be able to get up to competition standards. 

Zoe and Kate’s coach, Tom, is training them for the Olympics when the Olympic Committee announces that only one athlete is allowed per flag, meaning that only of them can ride. They are so close in talent and time that not even Tom can choose. Which means there has to be a final training race to decide.

I won’t give away the twists in the plot, suffice to say the book has a happy ending, all nasty moments are forgotten and everyone is friends by the end. It also has the most beautiful cover.

It’s not a badly written book, and it’s a fairly entertaining holiday read, but don’t expect the joy of Cleave’s carefully nuanced writing that emerged in his previous two novels. The shouts on the back of the books rave about it – it will make you cry, it will make you count your blessings, it will make you good to be alive. I’m afraid it did not such things to me, other than to make me quite glad to have finished reading it.