Editor's note: Up to 13 September, when the Man Booker Prize 2017 shortlist will be announced, Firstpost will be reviewing all 13 books on the longlist. This is your guide to the Booker contenders, and which ones you should read.
There lurks a sense of unease in the majestic landscape of Sebastian Barry's Days Without End. The air is charged with violence and fear, the smell of blood and death hangs heavy over the valleys. Yet there is an innocence and pureness of thought guiding the narrative, men making the best of cards they are dealt with. Sometimes questioning their fate, oftentimes just going along. Surviving.
Following The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty (1998), The Secret Scripture (2008) and The Temporary Gentleman (2014), Barry's latest is a fine addition to his ambitious undertaking of telling the story of an Irish family, the McNultys, across many time frames and places. Over the years, Barry has firmed his reputation as a historical fiction writer with his sprawling narratives. The Secret Scripture, along with his A Long Long Way (2005; part of a similar fictional project which follows another Irish family, the Dunnes), has been nominated for the Booker Prize previously.
His seventh novel, Days Without End, follows Thomas McNulty, an Irish immigrant who ends up in America to escape the Great Famine. His family has perished, and at the age of 13 he flees in a ship with people so hungry "they might eat each other in the holds." Arriving in Missouri by way of Quebec in the early 1850s, still starving, he stumbles upon John Cole. A friendship of a lifetime is forged as the two set out on their fever dream of an American exploration. "Two wood-shavings of humanity in a rough world."
In a mining town, they dress up in women’s clothing and dance in a saloon for 50¢ a night. McNulty discovers his comfort in dressing as a lady and his love for Cole. But puberty catches up with them and at 17, with their feminine looks gone, they sign up for the army.
With army comes the carnage. Charged with clearing the West of the Indians, the two participate in massacres. Here Barry's talents come to the fore as he paints vivid descriptions of their journey across the lawless continent, ending in murder. McNulty's humor gives way to contemplation and fear but he doesn't flinch in the battleground, which he owes to his final years in Ireland and his long journey across the continents, always shadowed by death.
Barry fills the pages with the sensibility of a poet. McNulty's narration is lively and unflinching, masterfully walking the tight rope between a story of love and a gritty tale of survival. During the war, the two share the bond of lovers and resolve to start a family with an adopted Indian girl. Back as civilians, McNulty once again embraces his desire to dress up as a woman as they return to the theater. But seasons turn and the Civil War spreading across the country. The two find themselves back in the army but with something to lose this time, a future they never hoped for.
The novel hinges of relationships. McNulty and Cole's relationship as the comrade in arms in open and inseparable lovers in secret. Their relationship to the young Sioux girl they have adopted, Winona. And the primal desire to keep her safe at all costs. The brotherhood among their fellow soldiers, an array of characters dwelling in shades of gray. None innocent and yet often compelling in their honesty and naivety.
The story is littered with characters, simple and complex, driven by desires and instincts as alien worlds collide into one another in the making of America. Forced immigration and national identities haunt men as they desperately cling the hope of better tomorrow as they are pushed to the limits of human endurance.
Barry tackles his grand narrative with lyrical prose and breathtaking beauty. Even the most mundane events are transformed into exquisite reading, with scenes painted so well they linger in the imagination for a long while. There are times though when the plot seems less believable, and the drama is generated using deus ex machina, but those instances are few and quite tolerable in the larger scheme of things.
“A man’s memory might have only a hundred clear days in it and he has lived thousands. Can’t do much about that. We have our store of days and we spend them like forgetful drunkards,” McNulty muses at one point, summing up much of the character of the novel. There are good days, there are bad days. There are triumphs, there are heartbreak. Life and death. Old makes way for the new. Days go by.
Updated Date: Aug 26, 2017 12:20:24 IST