In its almost fifty-year history, the Man Booker Prize has never failed to get people talking, with its recipient being destined for success and reputation whilst its critics make no effort to hold back in their public judgement. In 2017 when news spreads across the world – even the universe – in a matter of minutes, anyone can become a social commentator online, and politics seems to be heading further and further towards the extreme, the idea that the personal is political still rings true. Therefore, for a literary prize that has been deemed to be too political for decades now, more about who you know than what you’ve written,[1] the 2017 prize could be the most – or the least – relevant ever. It could go down in history as a seminal work that embodies the age in which we live, or it could be forever known as one that everybody felt like they should read but didn’t (I’m looking at you, The Remains of the Day[2]).

It is refreshing, then, to find a book on the longlist (sadly not the shortlist) that is both personally affecting, moving you to your very core, and also speaks volumes on a number of today’s most talked about political topics. This is exactly what Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End accomplishes. Barry takes a number of contemporary issues such as laws on homosexuality and the nuclear family, gender and the military, citizenship and nationhood, and weaves them into a compelling story that feels incredibly pertinent today, despite being set in the nineteenth century.

Days Without End follows the life of Thomas McNulty and his partner John Cole, from when Thomas is seventeen years old through to his mid thirties. The two men serve in the US Army on and off throughout this period. Despite Tom saying that life in the army is good,[3] Barry works to dispel any myths about american servicemen within the first few lines of the novel: “If you had all your limbs they took you”.[4] For the men in the novel – many of them immigrants without means – a life in the military is a choice made out of desperation more than anything else. The violence that they encounter and take part in, from the American Indian Wars to the US Civil War, is depicted brutally and incidentally: “They cut out the cunts of the women and stretched them on their hats. They took the little ball sacks of the boys to be dried into baccy pouches”.[5] In Barry’s telling, war is merciless and numbing, its dehumanisation of both serviceman and victims is clear to see.

The savagery of the wars is contrasted heartbreakingly with the beauty of Tom and John’s relationship. Their connection is always portrayed subtly, and though Barry has explained that this is because “his narrator did not have the words or notions”[6] to express his feelings in any more detail, this decision also helps Barry to convey the sincerity of Tom and John’s relationship. At first, Tom describes John as his “first friend in America and so in the army too and the last friend for that matter”.[7] Gradually, it becomes clear that they are not just friends, but lovers. Partway through the novel, between the action they see in the American Indian Wars and the Civil War, Tom and John are living with their adopted daughter Winona, a native American orphan. Despite the nineteenth century setting, they are not living a secret, degenerate life, but are living “like a family”.[8] Tom becomes much more explicit about his love and desire for John, describing him as “the best-looking man in christendom”.[9] The telling of the relationship is done with such little fuss that it is almost incidental, yet at the same time it is the backbone of the entire novel.

Murdo Macleod for the Guardian

Tom and John’s realtionship is not laboured upon from a political standpoint. Rather, Barry crafts the narrative so that the reader connects with Thomas and John on a personal level. Ultimately, Barry’s decision to celebrate the couple, without trumpeting the political ramifications of their lives, makes a strong political statement. Barry creates a welcome space in which these characters have no need to justify their relationship because there is nothing to justify. Barry has dedicated the gentleness of this characterisation to his son, Toby, commending the “subtlety, the delicacy and the intricacy of the love between Toby and his boyfriend.” Barry argues that tolerance alone is not enough, “it should be about emulation and reverence and learning from.”

One of the most interesting elements of the novel is Tom’s cross-dressing. Early on, both Tom and John dress up as women to perform as showgirls, a decision apparently taken because they need money and accommodation. Later on, however, the pair return to performing, this time as a heterosexual couple, and Tom plays at being the woman in the relationship. The couple’s resumption of their act indicates that cross-dressing is more important to the couple than a means of survival. They also perform with Winona, and their performance challenges the nuclear family. The crowds that they perform to – mainly made up of men – do not notice, or care, that Tom’s gender is not cis-female.

By the end of the novel, when both Tom and John have come to the end of their military service, Tom admits: “I feel a woman more than I ever felt a man, though I was a fighting man most of my days”.[10] He lives as a woman out of choice and the two characters together raise Winona. Again, Barry makes no attempt at overt political advocacy, it is simply assumed, and then evident, that Winona is raised in a stable and loving family. Towards the end of the novel when Winona is a young woman, Tom refers to her as “the queen of this o’erwhelming country”.[11] Winona is their pride and joy, their greatest achievement. The celebratory nature of this narrative, which quietly and without fuss charts the trajectory of this family, is tremendously affirming.

Reading Days Without End is not a particularly easy experience. Barry’s writing style is dense, as perhaps one might expect from a Man Booker longlisted novel. Despite this, once invested in its powerful story, it becomes impossible to tear yourself away. Reading it feels more like tackling a Gone With the Wind-style epic than a cosy three-hundred-pager. Although this year’s judges finally decided that it did not belong on the Man Booker shortlist, this is certainly one of the must-read novels of the past year.

 

[1]A. L. Kennedy, “Is the Booker Fixed?” The Guardian 18th September 2001. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2001/sep/18/bookerprize2001.thebookerprize

[2] This was written before it was announced that Kazuo Ishiguro had been awarded to the 2017 Nobel Prize for Literature. Maybe I stand corrected on this one.

[3] Sebastian Barry, Days Without End (London : Faber & Faber, 2016): 2

[4] Ibid. 1

[5] Ibid. 262

[6] Stephen Moss, “Costa winner Sebastian Barry: ‘My son instructed me in the magic of gay life’”. The Guardian 1st February 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/feb/01/sebastian-barry-costa-book-award-2017-days-without-end-interview-gay-son

[7] Ibid. 2

[8] Ibid. 135

[9] Ibid. 136-7

[10] Ibid. 273

[11] Ibid. 249