Book reviews – “A Thousand Moons” & “The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty” by Sebastian Barry

Sebastian Barry – poet, novelist, playwright, multi-award winner and Irish Laureate for Fiction 2019-21

One of the best books I read in 2017 was Sebastian Barry’s Booker shortlisted novel Days Without End. This extraordinary novel tells the story of Thomas McNulty and his companion and later lover John Cole who meet in the US Army and fight in the wars against native Americans and then the Civil War. Thomas crossed the ocean from Ireland to escape the famine. The couple rescue a young Indian girl, Winona, who has been orphaned at the hands of their own fellow soldiers, and go on to risk their lives, leaving the army and setting up home together with her as their adopted daughter. It is a breathtaking book. Barry began his literary career as a poet and he is also a playwright and it shows in this book; he uses the most beautiful lyrical language and has a keen sense of dramatic tension. The battle scenes are among the most vivid and visceral that I have ever read.

A Thousand Moons is the follow-up to Days Without End and was published at the start of the pandemic in March last year. Its central character and narrator is Winona, now a young woman, and her guardians, Thomas McNulty and John Cole, are living a relatively settled life in middle age. Winona is bright and determined and the men are keen that she should develop her talents, so she gets a job working as a clerk for a lawyer in the town. They family lives together on a small farm in Tennessee in a seemingly arcadian, slightly bohemian set-up with two former African-American slaves to boot. But prejudice is never very far away and in the small town, where post civil-war resentments still run deep, the household is regarded with suspicion, and particularly Winona, whose darker skin makes her origins obvious.

Local boy Jas Jonski is in love with Winona and wants to marry her, but she keeps him at arms-length. When one night Winona is raped, it sets off a sequence of events which lead to the murder of Jas. Winona is the prime suspect and events threaten to break up the family idyll; it seems inevitable that the discrimination in the law (Indians have no defence) will make it impossible for Winona to escape the death penalty.  

A Thousand Moons lacks the epic sweep of Days Without End, and is therefore a book which does not quite enable Barry to display his mastery. But it also feels like a book that had to be written; we had to hear Winona’s story, but it was always going to be a more intimate one than the grand tumultuous scale of the earlier novel. It is no less powerful, however, and the same themes, prejudice, small-mindedness, injustice, and the power of love, are picked up and explored further in the sequel. Almost all of Sebastian Barry’s novels are part of a wider schema, with different generations of the same families’ stories (the Dunnes and the McNultys) being explored. But despite their links, each novel seems to stand on its own, like The Whereabout of Eneas McNulty for example; Eneas would have been two or three generations after the migrant Thomas, but they are linked, part of the great spread, the Irish diaspora. A Thousand Moons is a true sequel and it helps to have read Days Without End.

I love Barry’s writing and I have decided I need to read his entire works! I started with The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty because it was his third novel (published in 1998) and the first of the McNulty sagas. I am also interested in how his writing has developed. He was clearly already operating at a very high level when he wrote it. It’s brilliant! Eneas was born in Sligo at the end of the nineteenth century and we learn much about his childhood, particularly his friendship with Jonno Lynch. He joins the Royal Irish Constabulary after the end of the first world war, a decision that will define his future life. It will set him apart, mark him as a loyalist when the Irish conflict intensifies and his former friends side with the republicans. He is handed a death sentence by these former friends and is forced to flee Sligo. But Sligo will never leave him and is a constant presence in the novel.

Most of the book concerns his travels, his odyssey, as he moves around the world, making comrades and enemies. He travels first to America (a brief reference is made to a distant uncle, Thomas McNulty), to Africa, returns briefly to Sligo, only to discover that his past “crimes” have not been forgotten; even in the context of Irish independence there is no amnesty for those perceived as traitors. Eneas ends up in London running a hostel with his old Nigerian friend Harcourt, a man also exiled from his country by civil strife (and ruination caused by British colonialism) but his past will always catch up with him.

This feels like a foundational novel. The first in a series, the start of a complex family saga that the author will weave. It also has the lyrical language that characterises his later work, and explores the many different kinds of love and companionship that humans can experience, and the horrors of prejudice and intra-community conflict. I listened to both on audio (also Days Without End) and the readings have been faultless – Aidan Kelly is fabulous and I could listen to him reading anything.

I recommend both these books highly and will be adding many more by Sebastian Barry to my reading list.

Man Booker Review #1 – “Milkman” by Anna Burns

With just a few days to go now until the announcement of this year’s Man Booker Prize winner, my goal to read all six titles by the 16th is not going well! In fact, it’s my worst performance in several years; I have only just started on my third title. Milkman took me some time to read. It is quite long, but it is also written in a way that I found it nearly impossible to read at my usual pace. The lyrical prose style that means you have to read nearly every word in order to feel the full impact. The same is true of the second book I read, The Long Take by Robin Robertson, which is in fact an extended poem, although it is somewhat shorter. I’m now on Everything Under, also quite short, but I’m not really enjoying it so finding it quite hard going.

Milkman imgMilkman is set in Belfast during the Troubles in Northern Ireland and the central character and narrator is a young Catholic woman who finds herself drawn unwillingly into a relationship with a local paramilitary leader. It is not clear when the book is set, but I am guessing around the late 1970s, early ‘80s. Northern Ireland is known to be socially conservative, but the general sense of the place of women in society suggests to me that it dates back quite some time. Our central character (not named, I’ll come onto this) is from a large family. Her father is dead and she has several siblings, both older and younger. She is in a “maybe-relationship” with a local young man, who she has been seeing for about a year, though they have not made a commitment to one another. She is keen on running as a hobby and shares this with “third brother-in-law”. Whilst out running one day in a local park she finds that she is observed by a man in a white van. Over subsequent weeks he infiltrates her life by stealth, indicating that he expects her to have a relationship with him. He is known only as “Milkman”. It becomes clear to her that he is quite a powerful local figure in the paramilitary world, so not only does she have little choice about whether to become involved with him or not, it is made quite clear to her that as long as she goes along with him no harm will come to her “Maybe-boyfriend”.

The pace of the novel is slow as we follow her complex internal dialogue about what she should do, her fears, her accounts of how the community reacts to her activities and descriptions of what life is like in this environment of threat, surveillance, oppression and violence. At first I found this slow pace frustrating, especially as there were parts early on that I felt could have been edited down. However, by the end of the book I could see that the author was building her character’s world quite carefully. Some readers will no doubt be only too aware of what life was like at this time in Belfast, the segregation, the violence, the suspicion, but most of us will not, and the slow pace ultimately helped to draw me in and help me appreciate the character’s dilemma. The sense of how she had no choice, the sense of how any behaviour outside the accepted norms is considered beyond the pale. For example, our character has a habit of “Walking while reading”, which almost everyone around her considers unacceptable behaviour and comments upon and encourages her to stop doing. It is ironic that such innocuous behaviour is thought to be dangerous and provocative in a context where shooting, killing and blackmail are not.

None of the characters in the book are named, all are referred to by their relationship to the central character (eg Ma, wee sisters, first sister), or some other title. This is not as complicated as it sounds and I think the author is trying to make her characters representative of the lived experiences of so many ordinary people in Northern Ireland at that time. It is also indicative of the dehumanising effect of the Troubles, and in particular what our young woman went through. By removing any autonomy or choice from her (and it was not just Milkman doing this, it was the strictures of the community) there is a gradual destruction of her selfhood.

So, a long and complex read, but a brilliant novel from a very talented writer. The prose is sublime, the language is like nothing I’ve read before, except perhaps Lisa McInerney. It won’t appeal to those who like action and plot, but for an examination of the day to day life of a young person in Northern Ireland during that terrible period it is something quite special, and very enlightening. Recommended.

Have you managed to read any of the Man Booker shortlisted titles yet?

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Advice wanted on Paul Auster’s “4321” please!

Around the middle of September, the six-book shortlist for the Man Booker Prize, the foremost literary award in the UK, and one of the top prizes globally, is published. I usually clear the reading decks for the next five or so weeks and set myself the goal of trying to read all of them before the winner is announced in mid-October.

Last year, I did pretty well, managing almost five before making my (incorrect!) prediction. Amongst many book bloggers, and reading groups, things become a bit competitive, and some years the books are long and it can become a real slog. In 2016, I struggled to get through Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing, which I found very sludgy at first, but thoroughly enjoyed by the end. I finally published my review of it this time last year, about six months after the Man Booker shortlist was published.

Alas, I have beaten that particular record… six months on and I have still failed to complete Paul Auster’s 4321. And this is making me a bit gloomy. It’s not that I’m not enjoying it, I sort of am, but to say it could do with some robust editing is an understatement. I crawled through the first 200 pages (which, incidentally, in a normal book with a normal typeface and normal line spacing would, I am convinced, be at least 300 pages), but I still have 650 pages to go! And it’s been so long since I read any of it that I’ll probably have to go back and start again.

It’s really heavy to carry around – definitely not one that slips in your handbag – and the audiobook is 37 hours long, which would still take me weeks to get through!

So, what to do? The reviews I have read say it’s great, which makes me want to continue, but it also feels like a huge commitment.

If you have managed to finish this book, do you recommend I continue?