I wanted to start the revamped Savidge Reads by talking about a book that whilst I read much earlier in the year has been a book that has lingered with me long after reading it. This is not what I was expecting when Days Without End first arrived in my hands. In fact, truth be told, if I am being completely honest, when I was first sent it back in 2016 I wasn’t really that fussed about reading it and had my Gran been alive still it would probably have ended on a pile of books for her.
Don’t get me wrong, when I read The Secret Scripture many moons ago I thought it was something pretty great, I just wasn’t sure that other Barry books were for me, unlike my Gran who raved about him. With its themes of civil war in America’s 1850’s, something I really have little interest in, I was almost certain it wouldn’t be my bag. Yet when it beat books I had read and loved (The Essex Serpent, The Gustav Sonata and This Must Be The Place, what a cracking shortlist right there) I decided I had to give it a whirl. A week later I wanted it to win the Costa and all the other awards.
Faber & Faber, hardback, 2016, fiction, 320 pages, kindly sent by the publisher
The method of laying out a corpse in Missouri sure took the proverbial cake. Like decking out our poor lost troopers for marriage rather than death. All their uniforms brushed down with lamp-oil into a state never seen when they were alive. Their faces clean shaved, as if the embalmer sure didn’t like no whiskers showing. No one that knew him could have recognised Trooper Watchorn because those famous Dundrearies was gone. Anyway, Death likes to make a stranger of your face. True enough their boxes weren’t but cheap wood but that was not the point. You lift one of those boxes and the body makes a big sag in it. Wood cut so thin at the mill it was more a wafer than a plank. But dead boys don’t mind things like that. The point was, we were glad to see them so well turned out, considering.
From the very beginning of Days Without End we are taken into the unflinching narrative of Thomas McNulty as he joins the US Army having escaped the Great Famine back in Ireland and become a refugee, where upon he witnesses the true horrors of the Civil War. Yet here he also meets John Cole with whom, and rather frankly but simply ‘And then we quietly fucked and then we slept.’ he starts a relationship. We then follow the two as they take part in a platoon before ending up in bar where they take on the role of female impersonators to entertain the locals who have not the joys of the company of the opposite sex.
They need only the illusion, only the illusion of the gentler sex. You’re it, if you take this employment. It’s just the dancing. No kissing, cuddling, feeling or fumbling. Why, just the nicest, the most genteel dancing. You won’t hardly credit how nice, how gentle a rough young miner dances. Make you cry to see it. You sure is pretty enough in your own way, if you don’t mind me saying, especially the smaller one. But you’ll do too, you’ll do too, he says, seeing John Cole’s newly acquired professional pride coming up again. Then he cocks and eyebrow, interrogatory like.
John Cole looks at me. I didn’t care. Better than starving in a wheat-sack.
Admittedly in the wrong hands this juxtaposition could come across as either totally unbelievable or completely farcical, yet with Barry’s deft and steady assurance this works and indeed provides some light relief (pun not intended) before sure enough Thomas and John are drawn back into the ranks to fight as the Civil War begins in 1850. It is from here that the novel takes a much darker twist, Barry looking at the appalling things that happened to many of the Indian’s living in the Great American wilderness. Yet once again there is a moment of light hidden here as Thomas and John take on the niece of an Indian chief, Winona, and an unlikely family is created. What constitutes a family being one of the major themes in the novel along with accepting and celebrating what is different. Though if you think a happy ending is coming here then you would be wrong, there be many villainous types abounds, however I will say no more as I wouldn’t want to spoil it.
Suffice to say that whilst I admit I was sometimes a bit confused where in the tale we sometimes were, Barry would flash back on tiny moments in Thomas’ life prior to leaving Ireland (which I actually would have liked more of as well as his journey) and we also ended up in the female impersonators bar on another occasion in the tale, overall I was completely won over by this story of two men caught up in events so much greater than them, who happened to fall in love. In fact, it was this particular almost casual aspect to their love story that I think made it all the stronger. Bar one or two mentions of ‘Prairie fairy’ the fact the love story was two men is totally what Days Without End is about and yet is in no way sensationalised, it is just quietly celebrated. This was such a refreshing take for me and wonderfully dealt with, all the more wonderful when you know Barry wrote this book for his son after he came out.
Of course, all the best sentiment in the world can’t make a book wonderful just because of the angle at which it comes, the writing could be crap, the atmosphere dry, the war an aside. None of these things are true of Days Without End. It might not always be the easiest of reads; some of the content is quite horrific but it is a war after all, Thomas speaks in a lilted dialect and for a short book about war the pace can be rather slow as opposed to some violence filled rush. Well, there is violence but it is not by any means rushed. Instead what Barry creates is a beautifully written – seriously the prose is just stunning even when it is about rat infestations or bodily infections – that it carries you along. You just need to take a breath now and again to take it in.
Spring comes into Massachusetts with her famous flame. God’s breath warming the winter out of things. That means something to a thousand boys heaped into camp at a spot called Long Island outside the old city of Boston. Except the endless yards of rain as thick as the cloth that falls on us. Battering the tents. But we got new business with the world and our very hearts are filling with the work. That’s how it seems as we set out upon our war.
I often find the books that surprise you the most are the books that you end up thinking on the most and, a lot like fellow Booker longlisted Exit West by Mohsin Hamid which I will be talking about in the next few weeks, are the books that grow on you and linger the most after you have put the book down for the final time. Days Without End is one of those books and as well as making it into my books of the year so far, has also reminded me why I enjoyed Barry’s writing so much before and why I should head to it much more often in the future. It is a subtle, understated yet emotionally charged book which looks at love and hope in times of war and the face of hate.