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Qweekend, The Courier-Mail, Oct 28, 2016
Irish writer Sebastian Barry tackles an unusual love story set in America’s turbulent past ...
When the love story first emerges from the blood and violence of Sebastian Barry's latest novel, it's a surprise. Days Without End is a lyrical, harrowing and extraordinary novel about the destruction of Native American culture and the divisive and bloody Civil War.
Barry's protagonists are two 17-year-olds - Thomas McNulty and John Cole. And they just happen to be in love. Their physical and emotional entanglement is central to this remarkable feat of imagination, and Barry's inspiration is very personal. "It's about the human condition and people loving each other," he explains over the phone from London. "My son Toby, who is now 19, is the muse for this book. He came to me at the age of 16 and told me he was gay. He has informed the story and enlightened me. He has read the first few chapters and he said to me, quietly, "I like your book, Dad'."
That means a lot to Barry, who says he wanted to write a story against prejudice and one that depicted a homosexual relationship that was "normal and victorious".
I suggest his novel is a cross between Brokeback Mountain and The Red Badge of Courage, and Barry quite likes that. It has also been suggested that it is, in its way, a western. "I have asked that question myself but that's a whole genre with its own tropes and I don't think my book fits," Barry says. "Actually, I'm working against those tropes."
Not that he has anything against westerns. Barry, 61, grew up watching cowboy films and loved John Wayne movies and those about the Indian wars and the Civil War. That could be considered an early grounding for his book.
But readers will be pleased to learn he hasn't based his narrative on memories of childhood television viewing. To prepare himself for Days Without End, he saturated himself in the history and literature of mid-19th century America. "With great anxiety about not knowing enough, I spent a year reading," Barry says. "There are thousands of books about the American west and the Civil War and the Irish involvement. McNulty is Irish. He signs up for the US Army, barely 17 with his brother-in-arms John Cole. They fight in the Indian wars and, ultimately, the Civil War."
The action moves from the plains of the west to Tennessee and the novel is a fresh look at some of the most fateful and formative years of America's past. Telling the story in an authentic voice was tricky. Barry laboured to get that voice but, eventually, it came to him. "It came with that first sentence and somehow or other the whole book was just lying behind it," Barry recalls. "I was both excited and stupefied when it came."
He became something of a medium, the voice dictating the story. It's quite an achievement and the architecture of the idiom he uses is both unwieldy and poetic. It sounds like a young man from the 1850s telling this tale, or as we imagine how such a young man would sound.
Barry draws on his experience as a playwright and poet as well as a novelist. The author, who has twice been shortlisted for the Booker Prize, has written about war before, notably in his 2005 novel A Long Way Home. The horror of frontier violence and conflict are described in this novel but there is also a high-flown poetry intricately woven into the narrative (very Irish of him), so that even the brutality has a certain lyricism about it.
As for the tender gay love story that is the heart and soul of his novel, it's essential. "Gay lives were lived normally in America at that time," Barry says. "I'm trying to put that love back into history where it belongs."
As well as being inspired by his son's coming out, Barry may be drawing on his younger self too. As a teen he went to the US and hitchhiked around. He was impressed by the expansiveness of the country and interested in its history of violence and dispossession. This is a book he is particularly proud of. "I felt it was something new and when I delivered it to the publishers their reaction was astonishing," he says. "Once in every 10 years you get a response like that, if you're lucky."
Days Without End, Faber & Faber, $33
Phil Brown - Qweekend magazine in The Courier-Mail Saturday October 29
Copyright © Phil Brown