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.

Books to give at Christmas

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A book is a great gift to give at Christmas – long-lasting, can be personalised, relatively inexpensive, easy to wrap, and wil always look as if you’ve thought hard about it, even when you haven’t! And if the worst comes to the worst it’s recyclable and re-giftable! I’ve posted recently about books for children, both fiction and non-fiction, but what about the grown-ups? Below, I’ve listed my stand-out reads of the year, any one of which would make a fantastic gift. Click on the title of each book to see my longer reviews.

Days Without End img Days Without End by Sebastian Barry 

Would suit men or women of any age who just love a great story, brilliantly told. It’s about two young men, mercenaries in the American Civil War, one of whom is an Irish immigrant, who find love amidst the horror, carnage, poverty and degradation. It’s graphic and hard-hitting but also tender and moving. Shouldda won the Man Booker IMHO.

 

 

 

Photo 11-10-2017, 12 45 36Elmet by Fiona Mozley

For lovers of Yorkshire who like their fiction a bit dark. Shortlisted for the Man Booker but sadly did not win. Daniel lives with his father, a bare-knuckle fighter, and his sister Cathy in an isolated rural home they built themselves, life takes a very dramatic turn when they are threatened by the local landowner who bears a grudge against the family.

 

 

Eleanor Oliphant  Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

For anyone interested in mental health issues. A fine first novel, which has rightly won many plaudits. Eleanor is our narrator, an unusual and vulnerable young woman who struggles to find her place in the world and conform to social norms. At times funny, at others heart-breaking, it’s a cracking read.

 

 

The Power img2The Power by Naomi Alderman

A great book for strong women who would like to turn the gender tables! Winner of this years Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, it’s a brilliant satire on what it might be like if women ran the world. In this powerful commentary on gender politics, the world’s women find they have a physical ability to injure, kill and therefore control men with an electrical charge. Imaginative and original.

 

 

More in Common img Jo Cox: More in Common by Brendan Cox

For campaigners and humanitarians. Written by the widower of the late Jo Cox MP, brutally murdered in her Yorkshire constituency by a Far Right Extremist, this account of the woman and her values, not only gives an insight into the life of this extraordinary politician, but is also a reminder of what it is to be human.

 

 

 

Stay-with-Me img Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo

For anyone fascinated by the tussle between modernity and tradition or for lovers of Africa. Set in Nigeria in the 1980s, this novel is a story about Yejide and Akin, an infertile couple and the pressures that places on their relationship. Moving and brilliantly plotted.

 

 

 

 

The Essex Serpent img The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

For natives of Essex or London or those who like a grown-up mystery story. Newly-widowed Cora Seaborne moves to a small Essex village with her autistic son, and strikes up a deep friendship with the local vicar, Will Ransome, over a mutual fascination with archaeology and in particular a local legend about a serpent who blights the lives of the inhabitants. It explores the conflict between science and religion, reason and superstition at the end of the 19th century, and the nature of love in all its forms.

 

I’ve just realised that all of these books explore the many types of love. Perfect for this season!

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Summer holiday reading suggestions

The 2017 Man Booker longlist was released yesterday and there are a number of books on the list this year which most avid readers and observers of the book world will recognise. A wide mix of well-known and debut authors, women and men, and diverse countries. So, if you’re looking for some summer reading suggestions, you could do worse than browse the list. I’ve only read Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End, which I reviewed here back in June, and which I absolutely loved, but there are plenty of the others in the list that are on my TBR pile, including Arundhati Roy, Mohsin Hamid and Colson Whitehead.

However, I think it is fair to say that when it comes to holiday reading, most of us are usually looking for something a little lighter? (Which Days Without End certainly is not!) Something you can read and enjoy on the beach with one eye on the kids? Something you wouldn’t mind leaving on your holiday rental’s bookshelf? If these are your criteria, I would suggest the following from my most recent reads (the title links through to the reviews).

Firstly, Holding by Graham Norton, which I enjoyed on audiobook (you will too), but which would be equally good as a hard copy and which, for me, is perfect holiday reading. Secondly, Sometimes I Lie by Alice Feeney, a decent thriller which I enjoyed, despite it not being my favourite genre. Thirdly, The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd, which is a lovely life-affirming book.

The Music ShopThere are of course, a lot of titles published in the Spring and early Summer, marketed specifically for the holiday reading market. I’ve been perusing the titles and these are the ones that have stuck out for me. The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce, is a love story set in the 1980s about Frank, a record store owner, and Ilse, a German woman whom Frank meets when she happens to faint outside his shop. It’s had good reviews and Rachel Joyce’s earlier novel, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, did very well.

 

Eleanor OliphantEleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman is on my summer reading list. Set in Glasgow, it’s about the emotional and psychological journey of a young woman from shy introvert with a dark past to living a more fulfilling and complete life through friendship and love. I’m looking forward to it.

 

 

 

Into the water imgPaula Hawkins’s new novel Into the Water is everywhere, following the phenomenal success of The Girl on the Train which I’ve just finished listening to on audiobook. I had to find out what all the fuss was about! I enjoyed it, but I found most of the characters a bit irritating (that could be the influence of the actors reading, however) and, as I said, thrillers are not my favourite genre. Into the Water is another psychological thriller about a series of mysterious drownings. Like The Girl on the Train, I think, it’s as much about the internal dramas experienced by the characters as it is about ‘events’ so I’m sure it’s gripping.

Your father's roomFinally, a little-known book that has caught my eye is Your Father’s Room by Michel Deon. Set in 1920s Paris and Monte Carlo (perfect if you’re off to France for your hols!) it is a fictionalised memoir based on the author’s own life. Looking back on his childhood in an unconventional bohemian family during the interwar period, the elderly narrator recounts how the events of his early life, including family tragedy, affected him growing up. I really need to read this; I’m writing a book myself partly based on my grandmother’s life in East London in the same period so I think I could learn a lot from how the author approaches this genre.

 

I hope you have found these suggestions helpful. If you have any of your own, I’d love to hear them. 

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Book review: “Days Without End” by Sebastian Barry

I listened to this on Audiobook, which was narrated by the wonderful Aidan Kelly. It’s a brilliant book, with the most sublime use of language, my appreciation of which was enhanced by Kelly’s fabulous reading. I had the same experience with Holding by Graham Norton, but sadly not with The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins, which I’m listening to at the moment, where I’m finding the narration rather irritating. Aidan Kelly’s reading brings such an authenticity to the listening experience that I actually believed I was listening to Thomas McNulty.

Days Without End img

The book is set in America in the 1850s, where our very young narrator and central character, Thomas McNulty, finds himself after fleeing devastating famine in Sligo, Ireland, and searching for a new life, any life, in the New World. He signs up as a mercenary soldier for the Government infantry in the civil war against the Confederate south. There he meets ‘handsome John Cole’, an American, with whom he develops an intimate relationship. When their time in the infantry ends the two make a living for a while as entertainers where Thomas masquerades as a woman. He finds he is comfortable playing this role with John Cole as his beau, and in the periods when the two live a settled life together, it becomes his costume of choice, as well as providing a convenient disguise in times of trouble.

The accounts of war and violence are graphic and horrific and no detail is spared, which I found difficult to listen to at times, although also strangely compelling. Thomas and John rejoin the army further on in the novel and are involved in head to head battles with native American Indians. These accounts were even more harrowing as the contrast between the two sides is exposed so starkly, the soldiers having far superior firepower. In one of these encounters, Thomas and John rescue a young girl, Winona, whom they practically adopt as their own daughter and determine to look after.

Some of the scenes in the book are brutal and hard to read (or in my case listen to). The injustice of the men’s situation, the terrible conditions in which they have to live, the way that soldiers are treated as cannon fodder and afforded very little respect by their military masters is shocking. They are forced to live a most brutal existence and for many of the men the experience is completely dehumanising. The extreme violence they both administer and experience is like nothing that most of us will ever have come across and the novel is very powerful as a result. And yet, there is also tremendous tenderness: the relationship between Thomas and John Cole is beautifully drawn, though we never hear John’s voice first hand, and never gratuitous, never titillating. Even Thomas’s cross-dressing is handled with a beautiful innocence. The love that is shared between the two young men and Winona is also very powerful; that they are capable of such care of another human being is all the more moving when you consider the extremes of violence, deprivation and injustice in which they have existed.

There is a tale here, though mostly the novel is about a time and place in history and what that was like for the people immersed in it. It is a tale not just of survival but about how people who have nothing, have love and find a way, ultimately, to live peacefully.

This is one of a series of novels about various members of the McNulty family. I haven’t read the others, but I will certainly do so after reading Days Without End. The novel won the Costa Book Award in 2016 and has been widely acclaimed.

I recommend it highly and can particularly recommend the audiobook. That said, the language of the book is so beautiful that I would also love now to go back and read it, to see those words dance on the page.

If you have read this book, I would love to hear your thoughts.

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