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.