Sunday, 26 February 2017

REVIEW: Days Without End by Sebastian Barry

Days Without End
When I picked up Sebastian Barry's 'Days Without End', which has since gone on to be the overall winner of the Costa Book of the Year 2017, I wasn't sure what I would be getting. Praised as a historical novel, the book had also received a lot of press for its portrayal of a gay relationship and Barry is an author know for his lyrical prose style. Having never read Barry before, I didn't know his writing - overly lyrical 'literary' titles sometimes fail to make my wheelhouse - but I've always found books set in the early days of the American West fascinating and I was interested to see how the author would introduce a realistic LGBT element within this setting.  

I have to say that, having now finished the book, I was completely blown away by it. The novel is extremely well-written with lush prose, fully-realised characters, a real sense of time and place and - to top it all off - a gentle, tender portrayal of love and family amidst the tumultuous Civil War period.

The novel introduces us to Thomas McNulty, an Irish emigrant orphaned young who has travelled to America for a fresh start. Here he meets John Cole, another young drifter, and they begin a short-lived career as 'young ladies', dressing up in a saloon so that miners may dance with them and forget their lonely lives. As they enter adulthood and their true gender becomes more evident, the two sign up for the US Army and, aged barely seventeen are thrust into first the Indian Wars and, eventually, the blood and fire of the American Civil War. When Winona, a young Indian girl, crosses their path, Thomas and John find their lives both enriched and imperilled.
The novel is more bloody and yet more beautiful than I was anticipating. Barry does not shy away from the realities of war and our 'heroes' take part in more than their fair share of killing. More than one outright massacre of Native American villagers takes place during the course of the book and it does not make for easy reading. What holds the book together in these sections is the power and integrity of Barry's voice - or rather the clear-headed, surprisingly perceptive narrative of the uneducated Thomas: 

"Indians look very puzzled, surprised and offended to be shot but they go to the wall with noble mien I must allow. You can’t have nothing good in war without you punishing the guilty, the sergeant says with a savage air and no one says nothing against that. John Cole whispers to me that most times that sergeant he just wrong but just now and then he’s right and he’s right this time. 
I guess I’m thinking this is true."

Thomas' voice, which has a unique blend of naivete and wisdom, was the key to this novel for me. If it hadn't been for the sheer power of the voice - the sense of reading someone's memoirs as opposed to reading a narrative - then I think I might have found the violence too bloody, too senseless and without any sense of redemption. And yes, I know that war is bloody, senseless and often without redemption in actuality but I don't necessarily want to read that in my downtime. So the fact that Barry uses the voice to confront the savage nature of war without losing the book to brutality was, for me, on of the strongest points of the novel.

Thomas' voice also kept me going when the plot veered towards the implausible, namely the numerous interludes when Thomas and John resume their entertainment career, with Thomas acting the lady to John's 'beau'. I may be wrong but I can't quite believe that mid-Western society was quite as au fait with the bending of gender norms as this novel at times makes out. And I fail to believe that even the most short-sighted of priests wouldn't spot a thirty-year old man in a wedding dress, however effeminate his facial features and clean-shaven he happened to be.

That said, I thought the love story very well handled. Thomas and John have a gentle, understated love for each other that just is. It was so refreshing to read a novel that doesn't make a big deal of a same-sex romance - there's no dramatic moment when the two realise they're in love, no staggering guilt about what happens. They are friends, then they are comrades, then they are lovers, then they are family. Just like that. It was beautifully done and the sense of family and unity that Barry creates between Thomas, John, Winona and their friends stays on just the right side of sweet without veering into saccharine

Overall, I loved this book. The plot is a little loose and meandering at times and it does have one or two implausible moments, but that failed to break the spell when I was reading it and I remained drawn in by the power of the voice and the sense of place and time that Barry has crafted. Some may argue that Thomas' voice itself if implausible - would an uneducated Irish orphan be capable of such poetry? I guess that one has to assume that education has nothing to do with the soul and, if nothing else, you get a real sense that this narrative comes from the soul's very depths. 

"Things go on. A lot of life is like that. I look back over 50 years of life and I wonder where the years went. 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 ain't got no argument with it, just saying it is so."

'Days Without End' by Sebastian Barry is published by Faber & Faber and is now available in paperback, ebook and audiobook from all good retailers

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Catch-Up Time!

The Good ImmigrantGosh, time seems to have run away from me again. One moment it was #Diverseathon and the next, that week and another have flown by and I've not updated my blog! I also don't seem to have read many books in the intervening period, although this is because I'm currently in a bit of butterfly mood so am in the middle of about six. As such, I thought that it might be best to have a bit of a catch-up post rather than a review or a wrap-up and to tell you a little about what I'm currently reading and my thoughts on them so far. So go grab yourself a cuppa and let's settle down for a chat!

During #Diverseathon I did start 'The Good Immigrant', the essay collection by twenty-one BAME authors writing about life in Britain today, which is edited by Nikesh Shukla. I prefer to dip into and out of essay collections because I like time to reflect on each essay before starting the next. So far I've read about six or seven in this collection and have found each one to be thought-provoking and challenging. The topics covered so far have ranged from the misappropriation of language through to the narrow populist definition of 'Asian' culture. Whilst I haven't agreed with everything said by the respective writers, each essay has been well-argued and really conveys the feelings of the writer about their role as a person of colour within modern Britain and the challenges that they face as a result. Definitely a very timely book, this is one that I am going to continue dipping into as the months go on. 

I've also pledged to assist in the crowd-funding of a new essay collection, co-edited by Nikesh Shukla, called 'Rife: Twenty Stories from Britain's Youth', which will feature contributions from twenty writers under twenty-five. It sounds really interesting - I might no longer be under twenty-five myself but I remember twenty-year-old student me being astounded that the 'young, up and coming' writers referred to on my courses were very often in their thirties and forties! And given that so many newspaper articles talk about the struggles facing 'the youth of today' but very few seem to feature comment from the 'youth' in question, I think this sounds like another much needed collection. 

Books For LivingAlso on the non-fiction front, I've been dipping into Will Schwalbe's 'Books for Living'. Subtitled 'A Reader's Guide to Life', this literary memoir is an affectionate look at the books that have helped to shape Will Schwalbe's life and the lessons they've taught him along the way. I found Will's first book, 'The End of Your Life Book Club', about the books that Will shared with his mother whilst she was undergoing cancer treatment, to be both gently inspiring and sensitively emotional and I really engage with his writing. I'm enjoying 'Books for Living' so far but have had to put it down for a few days to crack on with two fiction books that I really need to get finished. 

The Ashes of LondonThe first of these is 'The Ashes of London' by Andrew Taylor, a historical novel set during the aftermath of (you guessed it!) The Great Fire of London, which is my real-life book club's pick for this month. Alternating between the viewpoint of a young clerk investigating a series of grisly murders and that of a runaway girl determined to find her father, this has got me gripped after a somewhat slow start. I've not made enough progress to make the connections in the plot just yet (chances of me finishing before book club later this week? Zero to none...) but I'm intrigued enough to keep reading as, 100 pages in, the pace has really quickened and the characters are coming into their own.

Days Without EndI'm also right at the end of 'Days Without End' by Sebastian Barry, which I picked up during #Diverseathon and have been slowly savouring each night before bed. I won't say too much about the book here because I'm going to do a full review when I've finished - suffice to say however that I've absolutely adored it. I was about halfway through when it was announced that the novel had won the Costa Book Award 2017, a well-deserved accolade but one that does mean my library copy is now very much in demand, hence the race to finish it before the due date!
Did She Kill Him?: A Victorian Tale of Deception, Adultery, and Arsenic
Last, but by no means least, I'm also listening to a book on audio - Kate Colquhoun's 'Did She Kill Him? A Victorian Tale of Deception, Arsenic and Adultery'. I generally prefer to listen to non-fiction on audio and very much enjoyed Colquhoun's 'Mr Brigg's Hat: A Sensational Account of Britain's First Railway Murder' when I borrowed the CDs from the library back in the days before Audible became a thing. Narrative non-fiction, especially combined with another of my favourite genres - crime, is a particular favourite and Maggie Mash does a great job of narrating this tale of Southern belle Florence Maybrick, trapped in an increasingly suffocating marriage, who stands trial for the apparent poisoning of her husband James. I've only got a couple of hours left to listen to and I still can't say for certain whether I think Florence is innocent, or if I can guess how the jury will decide. Thanks go to +SavidgeReads for this particular recommendation as I saw the book during one of his recent unboxing videos - I wouldn't have even know it existed otherwise. 

So that's my 'Currently Reading' pile as it stands at the moment. If you've read any of them - or are in the process of doing so - please do let me know in the comments below or over on Twitter/Litsy/Goodreads. As always, I'd love to know what you've been reading recently and if you have any recommendations for me. And, until the next time....

Happy Reading! x