Category Archives: Sebastian Barry

Days Without End – Sebastian Barry

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.

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Filed under Costa Book Awards, Review, Sebastian Barry

On Canaan’s Side – Sebastian Barry

There is a rare moment, as a reader, when a narrator’s voice makes the hairs on the back of you neck stand up with emotion, a kind of book lover’s bliss – even when the content is sad. I had this within a paragraph of ‘On Canaan’s Side’ when Lily Bere asks ‘What is the sound of an eighty-nine-year old heart breaking?’ and from that moment on I was hooked by Lilly’s voice. Which is a good thing as in Sebastian Barry’s latest novel she is the woman whose life we follow and through whose eyes we see all.

Faber & Faber, hardback, 2011, fiction, 272 pages, sent by publisher

Lilly Bere, it first appears, has decided that her life is over since the suicide of her grandson, who survived the Gulf war physically though not mentally, and the cause of her heart break. You are left to wonder if the death of her grandson reignites memories of her brother Bill’s death in 1919 during the war, and starts the reminiscence that we are then told over a period of seventeen days. In fact it is her brother’s death which introduces her to Tadg Bere, a former soldier who fought with her brother, a moment which sparks a romance and changes her life for the better. Happiness doesn’t seem to last, it soon forces her to flee Sligo for America after Tadg joins the Black and Tans, this is itself again like an echo or rippling of the previous effects of her past and her fathers’ time in the police force which we learn of in her childhood.

There is a sense of tragedy from the start, you know that Lilly’s grandson’s suicide is not the first tragedy that has befallen her in her life and so we go back to her childhood and look to the present and how she ended up in Long Island and why. Initially fearful leaving her homeland and the family she loves, fear always seems a few steps behind her.

“Fear is a force like a seasickness, could you call it a life-sickness, a terrible nausea caused by dread, creeping dread, that seems to withdraw a little in dreams while you sleep, but then, just a few moments after waking, rushes back close to you, and begins again to gnaw at your simple requirement for human peace. Gnawing, gnawing, with long rat like teeth. No one can live through that without changing.”

You would be forgiven for thinking this is a melancholic piece of writing, yet through her character and highlighting life’s tragedies Lilly also emphasises the pleasures in life, often the smallest of them being the very greatest. I can safely say from the character of Lilly and her narration alone this will be one of my favourite reads of the year, sometimes she will break your heart and other times you will laugh out loud at her frankness because she doesn’t sensor herself be it from the first time she and Tag become properly intimate, to the fact in her old age certain bodily functions are playing her up.

“This is a day the land is being absolutely thumped by rain. Millions and millions of little explosions in the fields, making the soil jump. The roots of things I am sure are delighted by it, if it doesn’t actually kill them.
                I walked over to the other side of the pond to see Dr Earnshaw, because, even if my stay on earth is to be short from here on in, I had to do something about the constipation that is plaguing me. I had my umbrella, and my long plastic coat, but the wind was very disrespectful of me, and blew the rain against every bit of me, so that I arrived to the surgery drenched.
                ‘Mrs Bere, did you fall in the pond?’ the receptionist said, with her spiky blonde hairdo.”

If there were a theme in this beautifully written novel, and the prose is quite something else as I hope you can tell from the quotes I have used; I would say that, after death and grief, it is the fact that history has a way of repeating itself no matter what. It also highlights the stupidity of those who don’t learn from the past over those who seem to unwittingly draw the same events to them time and time again. I had hoped I would love it after reading The Secret Scripture’ I wasn’t quite prepared for the journey that Lilly and I would have together, and what a journey it was, one I won’t be forgetting for quite some time.

Regardless of how far after the Man Booker longlist ‘On Canaan’s Side’ gets, this is a book that is a deceptively small epic novel. As the blurb says it is ‘at once epic and intimate’ and I think quite extraordinary. I thought this might be a re-hasing of Colm Toibin’s ‘Brooklyn’ which is a book I don’t think any could match, my fears were unfounded, the only similarity s a woman’s journey from Ireland to America. I have heard that Lilly is in fact the sister of one of Sebastian Barry’s earlier novels, a lot like the narrator in ‘The Secret Scripture’ met characters from his previous novels, if they are all as good as this I think I need to read much more of the Dunne family and their interspersed yet connecting stories, any recommendations?

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Filed under Books of 2011, Faber & Faber, Man Booker, Review, Sebastian Barry

The Secret Scripture – Sebastian Barry

I think I must be one of the last people in the book blogging world to have read this book. Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture is a book that seems to come highly commended by almost every review and every blogger that’s read it so far. It has also won the Costa Book of the Year and was Shortlisted for the Man Booker. I always worry when a book has such glowing recommendations that it might fall completely flat with me and not only will I be the last person at the party, I will be the one that turns up in fancy dress whilst everyone else hasn’t. With this book I have to agree with the consensus that it is indeed an amazing novel.

The Secret Scripture is told in two narratives. The first is of Roseanne McNulty a woman nearing her 100th birthday in Roscommon Mental Hospital where she has been since she was a young woman. The hospital itself is being closed and her doctor, the second narrator of the tale, Dr Grene is looking at everyone’s case notes before he can recommend who should be moved to Roscommon Mental Hospitals replacement. In doing so he finds that in the crumbling institute her records have been destroyed and used by mice to make nests and so he has no idea why she was committed. Meanwhile Roseanne herself is looking back at her past and as the two both make their separate journals Roseanne’s story is revealed by both parties and uncovers deeply buried secrets.

These two characters make wonderful narrators as they are so different. Roseanne writes from her memory which might not be as reliable as it could be as she is writing over sixty years after the events and some of it is seen through her eyes as a child. Dr Grene is writing his account as his marriage is under terrible strain very much in the now and he seems to be close to some kind of breakdown often questioning if he should be a doctor at all. They are incredibly different characters and yet a bond is drawn between them even though they are wary of each other. They are wonderful flawed characters and in summing them up the best way possible I will use the thoughts they have of each other. Dr Grene see’s Roseanne as “a formidable person and though long periods have gone by when I have not seen her, or only tangentially, I am always aware of her”, Roseanne sees him as “a brilliant man. He looks like a ferret, but no matter. Any man that can talk about old Greeks and Romans is a man after my father’s heart.”

Through Roseanne’s story Sebastian Barry tells us of Ireland’s history. He also looks at the way that religion divided the country and people and how awful things came from peoples differing beliefs. He also looks at the history of asylums and how people could be committed, I shall not say more than that as I don’t want to give anything away about this book as if you haven’t read it what are you waiting for? If you needed anymore reasons as to why you should read this book, apart from a wonderful story, intelligent plotting, intrigue and great characters, there is also the prose which is absolutely beautiful. It seems like every single sentence as been thought through and every word made to count. I don’t think I can sell this book anymore than that really.

Now this book has made me realise that I might need to sort out my ‘Best Books of 2009’ tags as I though I have read some truly cracking reads I might be being a bit to tag happy. It takes certain books to blow you away somewhat and though these moments happen to us with different reads it seems that with The Secret Scripture it seems to have happened an awful lot with a lot of people. Sometimes with works like this turning the final page is something you feel sad about as you wanted to keep reading it endlessly.

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Filed under Books of 2009, Faber & Faber, Man Booker, Review, Sebastian Barry

A Month in Books: March & The Orange Prize

Can you believe March has almost been and gone, is it me or is this year going incredibly quickly? So as with February here is my review of the month as a whole. It has to be said on the whole it was a really good reading month, a very diverse range of authors and genres of books. March has been quite influenced by Richard and Judy looking back, mind you now their reads are over next month will be quite different, I still have The Cellist of Sarajevo to go though. I have also travelled a lot going to Los Angeles, New York three times, Russia under Stalin’s regime and the aftermath, Germany during both wars, in the land of theatre twice, strolled through Paris with Edmund White and been to Wonderland. It’s no wonder that I am shattered.

Books read: 12 which I think is a record.
Books added to the TBR Pile: 46 though I have absolutely no idea how that happened.
New author I tried and want to read ‘the works of’: Tom Rob Smith, and I did, all two.
Character of the month: Lilly Aphrodite
Best crime: Child 44 – Tom Rob Smith
Best non-fiction: The Flaneur – Edmund White
Surprise of the month: The Luminous Life of Lilly Aphrodite – Beatrice Colin
Book of the month: Ok this month there are three. The Luminous Life of Lilly Aphrodite by Beatrice Colin, Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith and The State of Happiness by Stella Duffy which you all have to read.

I am excited about what April will bring. It already seems a promising month as I have started The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry and it seems like its going to be a complete corker what more could I ask for at the start of the month. Now this leads on to the next topic of my blog The Orange Prize. The long list has been announced and I have one (Blonde Roots) and heard of three others (Burnt Shadows, Girl in a Blue Dress and The Lost Dog – the latter two were long listed for the Man Booker last year) here is the full long list.

The Household Guide To Dying – Debra Adelaide (Harper Collins)
Girl in a Blue Dress – Gaynor Arnold (Tindal Street Press)
Their Finest Hour and a Half – Lissa Evans (Doubleday)
Blonde Roots – Bernadine Evaristo (Penguin)
Scottbro – Ellen Feldman (Picador)
Strange Music – Laura Fish (Jonathan Cape)
Love Marriage – V.V. Ganeshananthan (Orion)
Intuition – Allegra Goodman (Atlantic)
The Wilderness – Samantha Harvey (Jonathan Cape)
The Invention of Everything Else – Samantha Hunt (Vintage)
The Lost Dog – Michelle De Krester (Vintage)
Molly Fox’s Birthday – Diedre Madden (Faber & Faber)
A Mercy – Toni Morrison (Vintage)
The Russian Dreambook of Colour & Flight – Gina Oschner (Portobello Books)
Home – Marilynne Robinson (Virago)
Evening Is The Whole Day – Preeta Samarasan (Fourth Estate)
Burnt Shadows – Kamila Shamsie (Bloomsbury)
American Life – Curtis Sittenfeld (Doubleday)
The Flying Troutmans – Miriam Toews (Faber & Faber)
The Personal History of Rachel DuPree – Ann Weisgarber (Pan MacMillan)

They sound like a real mixture of books and I so want to read every single one. Is anyone planning on doing the Orange Challenge and reading the whole long list or will people be waiting until the short list is announced?

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Filed under Beatrice Colin, Book Thoughts, Edmund White, Sebastian Barry, Stella Duffy, Tom Rob Smith

The Best Book You’ve Never Read?

We’ve all seen the lists, we’ve all thought, “I should really read that someday,” but for all of us, there are still books on “The List” that we haven’t actually gotten around to reading. Even though we know they’re fabulous. Even though we know that we’ll like them. Or that we’ll learn from them. Or just that they’re supposed to be worthy. We just … haven’t gotten around to them yet… What’s the best book that YOU haven’t read yet?

Hmmm this question from Booking Through Thursday has really made me think, literally all day, hence why the slightly late blog from me (that and trying to finish Netherland). I couldnt decide what one best book I havent read yet as there were so many so I thought I would do a top ten instead. How id I decide what made it on the list? Books that I have always wanted to read, books I have always been told I must read and books by my favourite authors I havent gotten round to yet!
1. The Blind Assassin – Margaret Atwood
2. Madame Bovary -Gustave Flaubert
3. The Poisonwood Bible – Barbara Kingsolver
4. Crime and Punishment – Dostoevsky
5. The Accidental Tourist – Anne Tyler
6. My Cousin Rachel – Daphne Du Maurier
7. The Well of Loneliness – Radclyffe Hall
8. Love in a Cold Climate – Nancy Mitford
9. The Secret Scripture – Sebastien Barry
10. A Handful of Dust – Evelyn Waugh

Please note: this list is technically subject to daily change as my mood for what I want to read and what someone might recommend me tomorrow may become the next best book I have never read!
So what are yours?

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Filed under Anne Tyler, Barbara Kingsolver, Daphne Du Maurier, Evelyn Waugh, Margaret Atwood, Nancy Mitford, Radclyffe Hall, Sebastian Barry

Some More Incoming…

If I have missed any then I apologise to the publishers I have just been swamped with new books but here are the most reecent, I won’t put the blurb of everyone as I think that might make for dull reading! But heres whats come of late…

Child 44 – Tom Rob Smith
The Stone Gods – Jeanette Winterson
The Confessions of Max Tivoli – Andrew Sean Greer
State of Happiness – Stella Duffy
In Cold Blood – Truman Capote
The Swimming Pool Library – Alan Hollinghurst
Death in Venice & Other Stories – Thomas Mann
The Secret Scripture – Sebastian Barry
Hotel de Dream – Edmund White
Me Talk Pretty One Day – David Sedaris
Breakfast At Tiffany’s – Truman Capote
The Indian Clerk – David Leavitt

How should I order them on my TBR, which ones can you recommend? Actually I should really concentrate on getting my current reads all finished.

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Filed under David Sedaris, Edmund White, Sebastian Barry, Stella Duffy, Tom Rob Smith, Truman Capote

Should Have Reads 2008

So whilst putting the final touches to the Savidge Dozen (or my version of the best books of 2009 in my humble opinion) I have been going through the books I have read and been sent or bought and of course the ones that I haven’t managed to read. So I thought I would do my own top ten of books that I haven’t managed to read but will be showing their faces in the first few months of 2009. I wonder if any of them will be in the Should Have Reads 2009, what a depressing thought, swiftly moving on…

The Top Ten Should Have Reads 2008

1. The Secret Scripture – Sebastian BarryThe

2. Child 44 – Tom Rob Smith
3. Love In A Cold Climate – Nancy Mitford
4. Story Of Forgetting – Stefan Merrill Block
5. The Outcast – Sadie Jones
6. Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy
7. The Little Friend – Donna Tartt
8. My Cousin Rachel – Daphne Du Maurier
9. Bonk – Mary Roach
10. Company of Liars – Karen Maitland (as didn’t finish it this year)

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Filed under Book Thoughts, Daphne Du Maurier, Leo Tolstoy, Mary Roach, Nancy Mitford, Sebastian Barry, Tom Rob Smith