Mini classic review: Days Without End by Sebastian Barry

Thomas McNulty, aged barely seventeen and having fled the Great Famine in Ireland, signs up for the U.S. Army in the 1850s. With his brother in arms, John Cole, Thomas goes on to fight in the Indian Wars—against the Sioux and the Yurok—and, ultimately, the Civil War. Orphans of terrible hardships themselves, the men find these days to be vivid and alive, despite the horrors they see and are complicit in.

Moving from the plains of Wyoming to Tennessee, Sebastian Barry’s latest work is a masterpiece of atmosphere and language. An intensely poignant story of two men and the makeshift family they create with a young Sioux girl, Winona, Days Without End is a fresh and haunting portrait of the most fateful years in American history and is a novel never to be forgotten.

“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.”

I was quite surprised by how much I enjoyed Days Without End. For the first quarter, I really struggled to get through it as the writing style felt so detached and a bit of a slog to get through as it was essentially reading a long monologue. However, there comes a point in the book where everything clicks together, and I barely noticed the writing style anymore and really started to enjoy the book for what it was.

Days Without End is not a light read — it’s gruesome and lingers long on the horrific descriptions and violence of war. It’s a compelling read and was quite anxiety-inducing to read many times. Thomas, the main character, is an illiterate Irishman who has a limited viewpoint on the war and essentially does what he is told by his superiors, but his narration makes it clear the devastating impact of genocide and colonialism.

I thoroughly enjoyed the discussion around queer love and gender expression. Again, Thomas never explicitly states his sexuality and gender identity as he doesn’t have the words to do so, but his romantic relationship with John depicts a fascinating dynamic between the pair. The novel is set during the 1850s, so it’s so interesting to read Thomas and John just being in an established, monogamous relationship — there’s no discussion about it, there’s no build-up or stress about feelings: they just are. Which, for a historical novel, is a rarity and I loved this portrayal.

This book is complicated but I do believe enjoyable for the most part. It’s a queer classic for a reason.

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