Like most people, it seems, I first came across Sebastian Barry when I read the Secret Scripture. I must have read it in about 2009 – a year after publication, but I was probably a little bit put off by the title (and the thought that the book might be rather more about spirituality than it actually is – I’m not saying this is a bad thing, it’s just not my thing…) – and by the time I finished it I was mentally kicking myself for leaving it so long. It was a beautifully written book with a very unusual storyline and I think it could still be one of my top 10 books of all time. Barry has touched on members of the McNulty family in other stories so my interest was piqued when I saw that one of the main characters in his new book, Days Without End, was called Thomas McNulty.
Thomas finds himself in the American West after escaping the results of the potato famine in his native Sligo. He joins forces with another lost youngster, John Cole, and together, after a time working as dancing-girls (pre-puberty) they join the army. They are involved in the brutalities of the Indian wars, although they do end up rescuing a young Indian girl, and then the American Civil War. There is violence, humour, friendship, camaraderie and a very touching love story. We see the horrors of the massacre of whole tribes of native americans, the dark days of Andersonville (a Confederate prison in the Civil War which, rather oddly, I had been talking about with my step-dad only a week or so ago) and the curious lives of miners so starved of female company they will pay good money to dance with young boys in drag. We touch on the experiences of the Irish, escaping the famine-induced death at home, through terrible conditions on board ship to even worse ones in what were, effectively, internment camps on their arrival in the New World. Nor do the Native Americans or freed slaves have any easier a life. I do trust Barry’s research on all these things – these levels of squalor and degradation were real – but the book is about more than this.
What I remember about the quality of Barry’s writing from the Secret Scripture holds true here too. It is lyrical, poetic – he writes with the lilt of an Irish accent. Not in dialect, although Thomas and John’s turn of phrase is very home-spun and uneducated, but just in a way that makes me think of the musical nature of the voice of a true son of Ireland. I have always thought of myself as one who reads for plot not language – but when words are used this well even I am drawn in by them.