Book review: “Days Without End” by Sebastian Barry

I listened to this on Audiobook, which was narrated by the wonderful Aidan Kelly. It’s a brilliant book, with the most sublime use of language, my appreciation of which was enhanced by Kelly’s fabulous reading. I had the same experience with Holding by Graham Norton, but sadly not with The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins, which I’m listening to at the moment, where I’m finding the narration rather irritating. Aidan Kelly’s reading brings such an authenticity to the listening experience that I actually believed I was listening to Thomas McNulty.

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The book is set in America in the 1850s, where our very young narrator and central character, Thomas McNulty, finds himself after fleeing devastating famine in Sligo, Ireland, and searching for a new life, any life, in the New World. He signs up as a mercenary soldier for the Government infantry in the civil war against the Confederate south. There he meets ‘handsome John Cole’, an American, with whom he develops an intimate relationship. When their time in the infantry ends the two make a living for a while as entertainers where Thomas masquerades as a woman. He finds he is comfortable playing this role with John Cole as his beau, and in the periods when the two live a settled life together, it becomes his costume of choice, as well as providing a convenient disguise in times of trouble.

The accounts of war and violence are graphic and horrific and no detail is spared, which I found difficult to listen to at times, although also strangely compelling. Thomas and John rejoin the army further on in the novel and are involved in head to head battles with native American Indians. These accounts were even more harrowing as the contrast between the two sides is exposed so starkly, the soldiers having far superior firepower. In one of these encounters, Thomas and John rescue a young girl, Winona, whom they practically adopt as their own daughter and determine to look after.

Some of the scenes in the book are brutal and hard to read (or in my case listen to). The injustice of the men’s situation, the terrible conditions in which they have to live, the way that soldiers are treated as cannon fodder and afforded very little respect by their military masters is shocking. They are forced to live a most brutal existence and for many of the men the experience is completely dehumanising. The extreme violence they both administer and experience is like nothing that most of us will ever have come across and the novel is very powerful as a result. And yet, there is also tremendous tenderness: the relationship between Thomas and John Cole is beautifully drawn, though we never hear John’s voice first hand, and never gratuitous, never titillating. Even Thomas’s cross-dressing is handled with a beautiful innocence. The love that is shared between the two young men and Winona is also very powerful; that they are capable of such care of another human being is all the more moving when you consider the extremes of violence, deprivation and injustice in which they have existed.

There is a tale here, though mostly the novel is about a time and place in history and what that was like for the people immersed in it. It is a tale not just of survival but about how people who have nothing, have love and find a way, ultimately, to live peacefully.

This is one of a series of novels about various members of the McNulty family. I haven’t read the others, but I will certainly do so after reading Days Without End. The novel won the Costa Book Award in 2016 and has been widely acclaimed.

I recommend it highly and can particularly recommend the audiobook. That said, the language of the book is so beautiful that I would also love now to go back and read it, to see those words dance on the page.

If you have read this book, I would love to hear your thoughts.

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‘Holding’ by Graham Norton

You’ve got to admire Graham Norton; he started out as a stand-up comic, first came to prominence in the classic TV comedy show Father Ted, making a handful of appearances as one of the many random priests on Craggy Island, and has since built a very successful career as a broadcaster on both radio and television, mostly in the UK. He has previously written three autobiographical books, but Holding is his first novel. People like Graham Norton are so annoying; they are really good at their chosen vocation, then they write a book…and they’re really good at that too! Most of us are just trying to be good at the one thing!

 

I do love Graham Norton, though, and this book does not disappoint. I listened to the Audiobook, which is narrated brilliantly by Graham himself, and I am certain this added to my enjoyment. He performs each role with such distinctiveness and brings the characters to life. The plot of the story is a straightforward whodunnit, but it has twists and turns which Norton handles deftly. The story is set in the seemingly sleepy town of Duneen in County Cork, Ireland, but beneath the surface, there stir unaccountable passions which have been and continue to be suppressed by culture and tradition.

Our central character is Sergeant PJ Collins, the local police officer, who is overweight, unmarried, and carries about him the burden of knowing that his life has been little lived. The small-town torpor is completely shaken up, however, by the discovery of human remains in a field which is being developed for a new housing estate. It is widely suspected to be the body of Tommy Burke, a young man who disappeared many years earlier in mysterious circumstances. Suspicions are immediately thrown upon two local women with whom he had romantic links: Brid Riordan, to whom he was engaged, but only, we learn, because she was set to inherit a farm when his own family’s fortunes were somewhat in decline. Brid is now middle-aged, unhappily married and an alcoholic. The other main suspect is Evelyn Ross, a spinster who lives with her two unmarried sisters in one of the largest houses in the town, who was Tommy’s true love at the time, but the relationship was largely unrequited.

Thus the scene is set and the plot thereafter takes on some impressively imaginative twists and turns. Graham Norton’s great talent, however, is clearly for character and he introduces us to a wide cast of individuals, from the swaggering and confident, but equally unfulfilled, Detective Linus Dunne from Cork (brought in to investigate the homicide), who initially patronises and sidelines PJ before gradually accepting and empathising with him, to the meek and mild Mrs Meaney, PJ’s housekeeper, who initially comes across as something of a busybody but who takes on greater depth as the story progresses. Listening to Graham Norton’s narration gave me an even more powerful sense of the cast of characters, I think, than if I had read the book, and, I repeat, he does it brilliantly!

The book is ultimately about what lies beneath, quite literally, in the body that is discovered on the building site, but also in the characters, the lives that go on behind closed doors, until a catastrophe comes along and forces them out into the open. It is also very much about the upending of old traditions (not all good), in a post-Celtic tiger, post-credit crunch world and its being replaced by new ways of being – not all of which are good either.

I loved this book – it had me driving slowly and sitting outside my house in the car, just so I could listen to the end of a chapter! It’s quite an accomplishment for a debut novel. Highly recommended.

Have you read this book? I’d love to hear your views.

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