“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.”
After fleeing the ravages of The Famine in Ireland, Thomas McNulty and his similarly pre-pubescent best friend John Cole, find themselves employment in a remote prairie tavern, dressing as women to dance with men who haven’t seen a real woman in years. As they grow older this illusion is harder to keep up, and McNulty and Cole sign up for the US army in the 1850s. The young men go on to fight in the ‘Indian wars’ and ultimately the American Civil War, at a time in history where they must keep the sexual side of their relationship secret.
I have mixed feelings about this book. It is undeniably beautifully written, and the use of the unreliable narrator creates an ambiguous space that gives a voice to those in history whose stories were cut short. The scenes of genocide are absolutely harrowing, and the evocation of the sprawling American landscapes are incredibly vivid. There is a feverish, dreamlike quality to much of the writing, familiar to fans of Barry’s The Secret Scripture (of which I am one). However, I felt like I was there more for the writing than the story, which never felt cohesive to me. The marriage and raising of Sioux baby Winona strained credibility too far. I know the intention is to say if horrendous genocide could happen, why not this? The sprawling nature of these days without end means that I never found proper resolution – while this is undoubtedly a beautiful literary novel, it is one without a satisfying conclusion.
Days Without End is published by Faber & Faber. I received a copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.