‘We were a plague’

51mHRH0-UAL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_Sebastian Barry’s Costa-winning Days Without End surprised, impressed, disappointed and troubled me in equal measure. Continuing Barry’s tracking of the history of the McNulty family through multiple novels, it focuses on Thomas McNulty, a young Irishman who has travelled to the United States via Canada in the mid-nineteenth century, where he and his fellow Irish emigrants were treated with shocking inhumanity. ‘Canada was a-feared of us. We were a plague. We were rats of people.’ Because of this experience, he now often buys into Irish stereotypes himself: ‘Don’t tell me an Irish is an example of civilised humanity… If you cross an Irish for half a dollar he’s going to burn your house in revenge… I was never no different neither.’ The story that follows recalls Noel Ignatiev’s arguments in How the Irish Became White (1995), which famously suggested that despite having economic hardship in common, nineteenth-century Irish immigrants to the States deliberately defined themselves against Northern black residents. As he sets out along the Oregon trail, Thomas’s experiences become geographically and racially distinct; while encountering black people, his principal contact is with Native Americans, especially the Sioux. And yet, his response, at least for the vast majority of the novel, is the same: he fails to see any similarity between his treatment in Quebec and the horrific atrocities he visits on the Sioux.

I’ve always felt a little lukewarm about Barry’s writing in the past. His prose is beautiful, but, at times, becomes so lyrical that it flattens some of the immediacy of the events he is relating and the distinctiveness of his characterisation, as in his The Temporary Gentleman. But Thomas’s narrative voice is an absolute triumph. In my review of The Temporary Gentleman, I wrote that I ‘was rarely struck by a single brilliant line’; here, they bristle out on every page. The novel is as good on scenery as it is on battles as it is on small personal detail. ‘All that riding grinds down your backbone,’ Thomas tells us, ’till I believe you gain for yourself a little store of bone dust into your buttocks.’ Or, ‘you ain’t long travelling on the plains when you begin to feel clear loco… Your brain is molten in its bowl of bones and you just seeing atrocious wonders everywhere.’ I discussed this novel at a book group, and there was some criticism of Thomas’s narrative voice for being too lyrical for an uneducated working-class man. As Lisa McInerney has recently argued, this assumes that working-class people can’t be articulate, which is not true. Also, I’m always surprised when readers interpret a first-person narrative voice as literally what the character would write down if they had pen and paper. There is some justification for that in Days Without End, where (as in so many Barry novels) Thomas seems to be writing his account from the vantage point of old age, but I still don’t think it’s a helpful assumption. After all, any ‘authentic’ written narrative, whatever the class of the person writing it, would obviously be full of repetition and error, and wouldn’t make for a very satisfying novel.

Thomas’s sexuality, and his lifelong relationship with fellow soldier John Cole, is also beautifully-handled. It’s hard to know whether we are meant to assume whether or not Thomas – who frequently dresses in women’s clothes and occasionally refers to himself as a woman – is supposed to be read as trans and/or gender-fluid. (This Guardian review weirdly suggests that even his cross-dressing is anachronistic; not the case!) I quite like the idea that he’s simply homosexual, because, if so, Barry has done a fantastic job portraying a man who understands his desire for other men in very different terms than he might today. While I’m not up on the literature on homosexuality in the nineteenth-century United States, Thomas’s gender-crossing would certainly have fit into popular depictions of male homosexuality in late nineteenth-century England. As Lesley Hall and Sean Brady have argued, high-profile events like the trial of Oscar Wilde collapsed ideas about effeminacy and sex between men into one cautionary tale, defined in opposition to respectable middle-class masculinity. Matt Houlbrook’s work on homosexual identities in ‘Queer London’ in the inter-war period shows that these ideas persisted in queer subcultures for some time. As one working-class man, John Alcock, said: ‘We were queer, so we were much more like women than we were like men.’ To my mind, it’s the job of the historical novel to explore mindsets that are genuinely different from our own, and to me, Thomas’s troubles with his gender and sexuality fit more easily into these contemporary belief-systems than modern definitions of trans or gay identity.

However, I was ultimately left troubled by the conclusion to Days Without End, which felt altogether too neat and pleasant compared to what had gone before. Relatively early in the novel, John and Thomas adopt a Sioux girl, Winona, after they and their fellow soldiers kill the rest of her family. The tensions that you might expect to arise are completely unwritten. Indeed, Winona often feels like more of a prop to back up John and Thomas’s ‘marriage’ and life together as a man and woman, and to cause plot-significant problems for them, rather than a character in her own right. This highlights a larger problem with the novel; while Barry is absolutely explicit about the slaughter of Native Americans by white settlers, it still feels like a backdrop to John and Thomas’s story, which, in my opinion, is very uncomfortable. This has structural as well as moral consequences for the novel; conflict drops in its final third, despite some significant events, because by then we have realised that neither John nor Thomas is going to fundamentally shift their world-view. Of course, I have no problem with historical novelists writing characters who believe things that we now see to be fundamentally wrong, but it makes it hard to fully buy into John and Thomas’s happy ending given that they don’t truly experience any kind of reckoning.

Barry’s writing here is better than anything I’ve ever read from him before (a tall order), and Days Without End is undoubtedly powerful and gripping. It’s a shame that it doesn’t follow through on everything it promised in its early chapters, but I’m not surprised that it has been so critically acclaimed.

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3 thoughts on “‘We were a plague’

  1. This is the best criticism I’ve yet read of Days Without End; I was so bowled over by the writing (which is, as you say, incredible, and to my mind highly believable) that I didn’t spend much time thinking about the racial/social politics of the book, and what you say makes a lot of sense.

    Liked by 1 person

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