I stayed at Rhona and Hugh’s excellent AirBnB in November. Apart from being wonderful hosts and fully deserving their five star rating, they introduced me to the writing of Sebastian Barry.
Days Without End is set in the latter half of the nineteenth century in America, and follows Thomas McNulty and John Cole through their military lives. A Long Long Way is also a soldier’s story, the life of Willie Dunne in the trenches in the First World War. So, two war stories. I’m not a great fan of war fiction as poetry to me seems the only way to do justice to the horror that is war, but these came pretty close.
Days Without End sees Thomas start as a teenage dancer, dressed in woman’s clothes at a coal-mining town. I have no doubt that Sebastian did his research and that such things happened in the lawless America of the mid-nineteenth century; I am far less convinced that the relationship between Thomas, who ends the book as a cross-dressing gay man, and a his partner, John, would go undetected or unpunished in that era – and that relationship is the plot. The wars, the atrocities against the native Americans, their effective adoption of a young girl, are all well-depicted in their futility, brutality and tenderness, yet are background. The plot is the relationship, yet, a homophobic era, Thomas’s and John’s fellow soldiers don’t even remark on it. This detracted from the overall believability of the story, which is a shame. It wouldn’t have taken much to address this.
A Long Long Way was the better book. The boredom, terror and strangeness of war are laid bare, as is its ultimate futility. What let me down was the ending, and this on two points. The first was a plot twist I found difficult to believe – not because I thought the betrayer would not do the thing that he did, but because I didn’t see how he was able to do it. But, more than that, the final two pages of the book shift voice – we go from being inside Willie’s head to outside. The book, it is true, starts outside his head when he was born. But there are 290 intervening pages, and all the shift did was tie up a loose end.
The plots of both books are linear, with almost no twists or turns, but this does is not to say there are predictable. What distinguishes the books, however, is not their plots, but the writing. Days Without End is told in the first-person using a semi-literate voice, yet one with great lyricism. Here’s a short passage:
Two miles on we got the shackles of heat lying on us again, so hot the country starts to shimmer like the desert. We had the sun half behind us to the south which was some mercy. Wasn’t a man among hadn’t had his nose skinned off a hundred times. Bear grease is good for that but it stinks like an arsehole and anyhow we ain’t seen bears for a long time.
And from the better-educated Willie Dunne of A Long Long Way
He sang like an angel might sing if an angel were ever so foolish as to sing for mortal men. His voice seemed strange and high, but not a counter-tenor. It just seemed to put a knife into the air; the notes were so clear and strong. Like a true singer, he could sing soft with strength, and sing loud without hurting the ears.
The language is polished and lyric: a pleasure to read. This wonderful use of the language made the books worth their flaws. I’m not sure I’ll finish Sebastian’s canon, but these two books were well worth the read. So thank you, Rhona and Hugh, for introducing me to his writing.