Book reviews, Costa Book Awards, Historic, Literary fiction

Review: Days Without End

Days Without End is the ninth novel from Irish author and playwright Sebastian Barry, and it was the third book in my Costa Book Awards challenge.

Barry is no stranger to literary prizes. His 2008 novel The Secret Scripture won the Costa Book Awards novel prize, and it was shortlisted, as well as 2005’s The Long Long Way, for the Man Booker Prize. He has the pedigree afforded to a Dublin-born writer plus a wealth of stage writing to bring to his latest work, Days Without End.

Days Without End

What’s is all about?

Here is the blurb from the publisher:

After signing up for the US army in the 1850s, aged barely seventeen, Thomas McNulty and his brother-in-arms, John Cole, go on to fight in the Indian wars and, ultimately, the Civil War.

Having fled terrible hardships they find these days to be vivid and filled with wonder, despite the horrors they both see and are complicit in. Their lives are further enriched and imperilled when a young Indian girl crosses their path, and the possibility of lasting happiness emerges, if only they can survive.

What’s good about it?

Where to start…

Like most Irish writers, Barry is a master of lyrical prose. His writing is exquisitely crafted and beautiful delivered, capturing delicate emotion and extreme horror with equal poignancy. The book is written in the first person using McNulty’s Irish American drawl to great effect. The language is carefully chosen and deftly executed, and effortlessly pulls the reader into the world of the narrative.

There are some particularly striking phrases that jumped off the page. Things like “I guess love laughs at history a little” and this beautiful musing on the restorative power of nature:

Day Without End quote

The book explores a whole range of issues: social, political and personal. The relationship between McNulty and John Cole delves into the complexities of homosexuality at this period as well as presenting an affectionate portrayal of companionship. It is tender and raw, visceral and sweet all at once.

McNulty’s status as an Irish emigrant who ventured to America as a result of famine and the brutality of the English bears significant parallels with the treatment he inflicts on the Native Americans during his service in the armed forces. This narrative subtly reflects the contemporary fascination with the concepts of national identity, immigration and ownership.

What’s not so good about it?

This subject matter isn’t typically something I would choose myself. I find it difficult to read about conflict and have little interest in military history, even fictionalised versions of it.

However, Barry’s elegant prose and confident storytelling kept me engaged and supplied enough emotional succur to get me through the more violent scenes.

Overall, I enjoyed this book enormously and was swept away with the power of Barry’s writing. He could certainly be in for another Costa win and I’d not be surprised to see Days Without End on other prize shortlists soon.

Check out my other Costa Book Awards reviews here.


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