How did it come about that an Irishman, Sebastian Barry, has written one of the most illuminating and moving recent novels about America—and nineteenth-century America at that? And what odds would you have given that it would be published in the United States within weeks of that other superb novel set in the same period: George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo? (Please don’t tell me that the novel is dead.)
Days Without End is Barry’s eighth novel, a number that includes an early, ambitious, and pretentious Joycean effort called The Engine of Owl-Light, which is unavailable and which you can safely ignore. Every one of his other novels is luminous. Not one of them sounds like anyone else. In Britain, he’s a major figure—he’s twice won the Costa (previously Whitbread) Book Award, not only for best novel but also for Book of the Year, the only novelist to be so honored. Two of his books have been shortlisted for the Booker; two have won the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction. His reviews are almost unanimously rapturous. In America they’re equally splendid—and have been mostly ignored; he has ardent admirers here but remains relatively unknown, although he’s traveled and taught in America and knows it well.
This should change with Days Without End, a book of such feeling, charm, persuasiveness, and suspense that Barry’s American audience will surely swell. Who could resist the voice of its narrator, young Thomas McNulty, who has escaped famine-struck Ireland, his family dead of starvation, in one of the notorious “coffin ships” that carried hundreds of thousands of Irish emigrants to America in pre–Civil War days? Those ships were hell, and for many of the new Americans, life here was hell too. Thomas, blundering across the country, desperate for any kind of work, finds himself in Missouri—alone, in rags, and hungry. Ducking under a hedge in a sudden downpour, he runs into another untethered boy: Handsome John Cole, as Thomas likes to refer to him. Thomas is about fifteen but “wren-sized”; John is a year or two younger but tall. From that first moment, they belong to each other.
Together they head out, ready to take on any menial job, however degrading, that they may stumble upon. They find themselves in a small mining town, hired by a well-intentioned saloon owner to dress up as girls and dance (and only dance) with the miners in a place where there are no women to speak of. Thomas is completely comfortable in his new garb and in this role, until he and John just can’t hide their boyness any longer and are back on the road. As for their sexuality, it’s dealt with in one astonishing sentence, dropped into the narrative so casually that it’s as natural as it is shocking: “And then we quietly fucked and then we slept.” That’s just about it for the sexual life of these two men, except for a casual affectionate kiss, through the twenty-five years or so that we observe their deeply happy union.
For want of any other suitable occupation, the boys join the army and find themselves in California, participating in a berserk massacre of unresisting Native Americans—unprotected women and children. Later they will be fighting for the Union in the Civil War, Thomas taken prisoner and sent to the dreaded Andersonville prison camp. (More than a quarter of its 45,000 inmates died there; the photographs of the survivors are as horrifying as those taken eighty years later at Dachau.)
During the course of these dangerous and soul-searing experiences, the relationship between the two young men never falters, and indeed is strengthened when, through a series of quirks of history, they find themselves the self-appointed guardians—the parents, in essence—of a young Sioux child named Winona. There are perils to come: Thomas in mortal terror, about to be hanged for desertion; Winona in need of rescue from another devastating massacre. There is no mitigation of the ugly history of our nation during these convulsive times.
So how does Days Without End achieve its buoyancy, its air of hope, its joyousness? Partly through the convincing goodness of its central characters, as revealed to us through Thomas’s half-naive, half-acute, always generous perceptions. Partly through Sebastian Barry’s response to the beauty of the natural world and, most important, to the beauty of life itself. “Sweet life,” Thomas reflects.
I was sore in love with all my labouring in Tennessee. Liked well that life. Up with the cockcrow, bed with the dark. Going along like that could never end. And when ending it would be felt to be just. You had your term. All that stint of daily life we sometimes spit on like it was something waste. But it [is] all there is and in it is enough.
Will Thomas and John and Winona survive the traumas of their youth? Since Days Without End is told in retrospect, set down when Thomas has reached the grand old age of forty or thereabouts, common sense reassures us that he, at least, does survive. But such is the pull of the narrative, and our feeling for him and his, that our apprehension doesn’t let up. Nor does our affectionate concern for this open-hearted, unselfconscious, practical, Irish-American hero, who is at once an exemplary soldier and a cheerful farmer; a virile man who finds himself more and more comfortable in the guise of a woman; an orphan for whom family is everything.
Days Without End is the only one of Barry’s novels set in the nineteenth century, but it is linked to certain of his other books in various ways, one of them literally: once or twice in those that deal with the McNulty family in the twentieth century, we hear of a long-ago McNulty who emigrated to America and about whom no one knows anything. Barry himself, in interviews, tells us that there was such a figure in his own family’s distant past, but “all my grandfather ever said about him was that his great-uncle had been in the Indian wars. That’s it.”
So Barry was free to invent Thomas. In The Temporary Gentleman (2014), the central character refers to “my great uncle Thomas McNulty, who was scalped by a band of Comanches in the central grasslands of Texas.” Barry in an interview mischievously remarks, “That’s not true, I don’t think,” and more soberly explains, “It’s when books contradict each other that gives me the most joy. That to me sounds more human. In later generations, everything is a story. History is surmises and good sentences.”
Far from denying the connections between his life and his art, Barry is ready to point them out. The relationship between Thomas and John Cole, he has said, was inspired partly by his son Toby, on whose behalf he wrote an open letter supporting the Yes vote in Ireland’s recent same-sex marriage referendum. In an extended interview in The Guardian, he reports: “My beautiful son came into our bedroom one morning when he was 16, and said, ‘Dad, I’m gay.’ I said ‘Oh, thank God, because now you can go around all that ghastly heterosexual thing that we’ve been struggling with all our lives.’ It just seemed like freedom.” Observing Toby’s relationship with his boyfriend, he discerned something quite distinct from his own “bonkers” love life:
There’s an area of wonderment that I didn’t expect. They were kids but they knew something that I didn’t know. It was the beginning of thinking, well, we’re being asked as straight people to be tolerant towards gay people but maybe that’s wrong, maybe what we should be is envious.
This perception of homosexuality is a reflection of Barry’s overriding belief in the centrality of family to life, not a byproduct of the culture wars or of identity politics. Days Without End is no more a gay novel than it is a war novel or, for that matter, a historical novel. In fact, you could say that Thomas McNulty, happily washed up on a hardscrabble farm in Tennessee, floats away from history. Because history, for Barry, is Ireland—a history that none of his other protagonists ever really escapes from.
The six novels that precede Days Without End divide neatly between two families: the McNultys and the Dunnes—his mother’s and his father’s. The hero of Barry’s first mature novel, The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty (1998), gets as far away from Ireland as his drifting life can take him—to Galveston, Texas, when he’s still a youngster sailing around the world with the British Merchant Navy and learning about drinking and whores; later, to a French vineyard where a peasant has taken him in after he’s missed the Dunkirk evacuation; to the port of Grimsby in the northeast of England, where he spends years drudging as a herring fisherman; and on to West Africa, where he finds himself employed digging canals. He can’t go home again, because at one point in his youth he joined the Royal Irish Constabulary and found himself on the wrong side of Irish history—a “peeler,” a “tan,” a traitor to the revolutionary cause of Irish freedom. It made him a marked man, a ruined twenty-year-old, pursued relentlessly by men obsessed with punishing such traitors to “Ireland.”
Several times he sneaks back to Ireland to see his parents and his younger siblings, and where the girl he adored and hoped to marry has moved on. During one furtive visit, he peers through the window of his brother Jack’s home and
sees his niece and his brother and feels the bareness of his own life…. No children, no wife, no picture house where human actions unfold and are warmly enacted. He can barely remember why his life is so bare, he is that used to it, the bloody life of a lone seal out in the unknowable sea.
That he finds, eventually, a home and a family of sorts is a miracle; that it cannot last is inevitable—finally Irish history catches up with him.
Barry’s novels give us lives, not plots—that is their power. Perhaps it isn’t coincidental that his most successful book until now, The Secret Scripture (made into a movie with Vanessa Redgrave, Rooney Mara, and Eric Bana that Barry has disowned), is the most plot-driven. Roseanne Clear is a century old, living out her life in a benign if crumbling old people’s institution where a Dr. Grene has been in charge of her forever. She is secretly writing down her life; he is hoping to discover what that life has been. He is mourning his wife; Roseanne is remembering her ex-husband, a twentieth-century Tom McNulty, who cast her out. (She’s also remembering Fred Astaire: “Not a handsome man. He said himself he couldn’t sing. He was balding his whole life. He danced like a cheetah runs, with the grace of the first creation. I mean, that first week. On one of those days God created Fred Astaire.”) The Secret Scripture is a beguiling book that I would have found even more beguiling if I hadn’t sensed too early on that it was moving toward a climactic and in some measure predictable revelation.
Tom, Eneas, and Jack are the three sons of this generation of McNultys. (Their only sister, Teasy, has become a mendicant nun in England.) After shedding Roseanne, Tom has settled into a fulfilled second marriage and a solid middle-class existence. Eneas, as we have seen, has his own book. Jack, whom we’ve only half-glimpsed in the earlier novels, is the protagonist of The Temporary Gentleman, set in Ghana in 1957. He’s a retired UN observer, a washed-up expat who’s planning on going home to Sligo, the seaport in northwest Ireland where the McNultys come from. But his memories and feelings are focused on reliving his marriage to the once-radiant—the adored—Mai, who has slowly disintegrated into alcoholism, despair, and early death (Jack blames himself), leaving behind two daughters and a great rupture in his soul. It is of his daughters that he is now thinking, hoping “to use all my skill whatsoever I possess to build bridges at last of some coherence and solidity between myself and them.” And particularly with his actress daughter, Maggie, who is a reimagining of Sebastian Barry’s mother, the celebrated Irish actress Joan O’Hara, with whom he had a tumultuous, often troubled relationship, and who died all too young. Somehow, Barry again manages to transform all this personal history and pain into invented lives; there’s never a moment when you feel he’s just reporting. His family’s past is his material, not his subject.
But, as already mentioned, his family’s past—and his Ireland’s past—is not just the past of his mother’s clan, the McNultys; it’s also the past of the Dunnes (that is, the Barrys), his father’s clan. The three Dunne books—Annie Dunne (2002), A Long Long Way (2005), and On Canaan’s Side (2011)—seem to me his consistently finest. Again, each of these books centers on one of the siblings of a single generation of a family, and as with the McNulty novels, each of them is meant to be read separately from the others: they aren’t linked sequentially; they don’t overlap.
Completely apart from these is The Steward of Christendom (1995), Barry’s most successful play (he was a well-known playwright before he became a novelist), which focuses on the dominant member of the Dunne family, the father, as he holds forth, in and out of his right mind, in the institution where he is ending his days. Thomas Dunne had been a great man: the head of Dublin’s Royal Constabulary, the highest position a Catholic in his line of work could achieve in Ireland at that time, before history dislodged him from his eminence. It is Thomas whom his children first look up to, then look back on.
The oldest girl is Maud, who marries an artist, bears him four children, and then “put herself to bed one autumn morning and never arose again in any purposeful way.” Next comes Annie, whose modest hump bars her from marriage. Then the one son, Willie, so much shorter than his father’s six and a half feet that he isn’t eligible to join the Constabulary. And finally Dolly, the live wire, the charmer, who abandons home and country for the New World.
Annie Dunne is quietly perfect: the story of a woman of sixty or so whose world is gone—her father dead, her siblings scattered, now living with Sarah, a distant cousin, on a little farm with nothing much to sustain them other than a flock of chickens, two milk cows, a pony, and the most resolute discipline. Years earlier, when her sister Maud retreated from life, Annie raised her boys, who are now grown men and leading lives of their own. But one of those men brings his two young children to the farm, for Annie and Sarah to look after for a summer. The children are city-bred, delicate, needful. For the two aging cousins, these children are life itself. “I love you, Auntie Anne,” the little girl says, and Annie tells us, “The wolf of pride smiles in my breast.”
The summer brings its difficulties, its anxieties—its dangers, even—and then it is over and the children are gone: “Will they remember anything of these days? Will they hold in their hearts the love I have for them, or will it all pass away like all the things of childhood?” The novel cannot answer such questions, but in a “conversation” that is printed in the back of the book, Barry does remember that “the woman I had in my mind and have carried in mind all my life, could love a child, and practiced that love faithfully and without stint when her brief time was given her.” In the same autobiographical passage, he remarks that he is “just beginning a book set during the First World War. Oddly enough it is about Annie’s brother Willie, who died in Flanders.”
That book, A Long Long Way, is another masterpiece, though of a very different kind. As a war novel, it’s as devastating as The Red Badge of Courage or All Quiet on the Western Front; its descriptions of the carnage in World War I are almost unbearable. Willie hangs on through four horrendous years as an Irishman soldiering in the trenches for the British army, making him a traitor to his erstwhile friends back in Dublin. He is frightened the entire time; he loses the girl he’s loved since she was thirteen (“She wasn’t so wedded to the idea of his erection as perhaps he was”); he is badly wounded. But rather than dehumanizing him, his fearful experiences do the opposite—they broaden his sympathies:
It was not just the Ulstermen of the 36th, not for a moment. It was Scottish Highlanders (some of them hailing oddly from Canada, Willie noted), black Africans, great clumps of Chinese workers incinerated while they worked, Australians and New Zealanders, in violent teems of youngsters faithfully plodding across acres to receive machine-gun bullets in their eyes, their brains, their cheeks, their breasts, their legs, their stomachs, their ears, their throats, their backs (more rare, unless the Boche came in behind them), the small of the back, the small of the knee, the small of the heart. There was no town or village on the anatomy of the human body—if the body could be considered a country—that had not tried the experiment of a bullet entering there.
Yet the greatest wound Willie receives is a rent in the fabric of love between him and his father. Home on leave, Willie blunders into the fatal Easter Rising of April 1916. He sees Irish killing Irish in the name of revolution, and British killing Irish in the name of law and order. A man dies in his arms. His father, representing the law, does his duty and is proud of it, and when Willie questions him, he turns on his adored son. Even so, in his last letter to his father from the front, Willie writes, “I believe in my heart that you are the finest man I know. When I think of you there is nothing bad that arises at all. You stand before me often in my dreams and in my dreams you seem to comfort me. So I am sending this letter with my love, and thinking of you.” History has done its best to destroy their mutual devotion, but for once history doesn’t prevail.
Our final view of the Dunnes comes in On Canaan’s Side. Dolly Dunne, renamed Lilly Bere, has fled Ireland for America with her beloved new husband to escape yet another would-be fatal reprisal from political zealots. “Livin’ on Canaan’s side, Egypt behind/Crossed over Jordan wide, gladness to find,” the epigraph reads. But there is to be no gladness. Lilly’s husband is murdered in front of her, and now, looking back at the end of a long life, she contemplates “the colossal ungenerosity of it, implacable eternal hatred of it, that they wouldn’t let us go, forgive us our trespasses. That they wouldn’t allow us to cross into Canaan, but would follow us over the river, and kill him on Canaan’s side. The land of refuge itself.”
Lilly, in danger, has herself had to flee, slowly fashioning a new existence with a second husband, a son, a grandson, all now lost to her. Her circumstances are comfortable, but she is eighty-five years old, and there is nothing to live for. As she prepares to end her life she reflects:
I knew, I exulted in the fact that when I was done, there would be something so slight lying there in the dress I wore. That the infinite gap between two points, in this instance between being alive and being dead, that the mathematicians tell us cannot be closed, would be closed. I would not have any distance at all to go to nothing.
Somehow, Barry has once more made us believe that, through the power of memory and language, a scarred and painful life can reveal itself as a triumph of humanity. Only in the great films of Ozu—Tokyo Story, Late Spring, Early Summer—have I come across such a fusing of tenderness, realism, suffering, endurance, and acceptance.
In 1999, there was a long and wise review in these pages by Thomas Flanagan of three new Irish novels, of which The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty was one. “It is wonderful and a wonderfully strange book by a fine writer,” he wrote; “too ambitious, perhaps, at times too portentous about history and Ireland, but in these times ambition is too rare to require apology.” The ambition has only strengthened in the nineteen years between then and now, although it has partially masked itself by telling less far-ranging stories. Only On Canaan’s Side extends itself as capaciously, but it is written in the domestic first-person voice of its protagonist, Lilly Bere, whereas Eneas’s more mythic journey—it’s surely not by accident that his name echoes that of Virgil’s hero—is narrated in the third person.
Flanagan also remarks on Barry’s “curious voice, one which commands an elegance which at times comes close to inflation, but wedded to the cadences of ordinary Irish country speech.” I would have said that the voice at times turns somewhat lyrical, even poetic, though that is truer of the earlier books than of the later, as Barry evolves from the poet and dramatist he began as. His writing, in fact, is somewhat spare, but with an overlay of Irish panache. Well, he’s Irish.
His great subject—the effect history has had on Ireland’s men and women—has never worn thin, but it may have worn itself out as Irish history has taken such a dramatic turn in the past decades. Think of the disgrace of the church over pedophilia, contributing further to its waning influence; the economic miracle; the open border between the north and the south; the loosening of old moral imperatives. Not only did the bill on gay marriage pass by a strong majority, but opposition to abortion has been steadily declining.
This is a brave new Ireland. Perhaps Barry’s decision to set his latest novel in nineteenth-century America is an acknowledgment of that reality. But if his subject has left him behind, in Days Without End he has taken an astonishing step—backward chronologically but forward artistically. Who knows where his sympathies and imagination will lead him next?