Is Sebastian Barry suffering from mid-career doubt?

An exciting new guard of Irish writers have set the literary world ablaze. But where does that leave the old guard? Barry's Days Without End provides some answers.

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It is strange to recall that, only six years ago, the Irish novelist Julian Gough made a headline or two by deriding his peers (young and old) as a backward-looking, “priestly caste . . . cut off from the electric current of the culture”. Gough’s timing proved superb. Since his puckish rant, a fresh wave of writers from Ireland – Eimear McBride and Kevin Barry are only the most prominent – has produced some of the sparkiest, most formally daring new fiction in English.

But where does the current Irish revival leave the old guard? It is tempting to see Sebastian Barry’s tender, brutal and stylistically taxing new novel as an expression of mid-career self-doubt from a writer whose divisively exquisite lyricism seemed a plausible exhibit A for Gough’s case (not least to Barry, who, taking his lumps with good cheer, recalled his youthful urge to “clear out everything”).

As a historical narrative told by a semi- literate protagonist raking over his past, Days Without End, recently shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award, seems at first glance to stick to a template that Barry used previously in The Secret Scripture (2008) and On Canaan’s Side (2011). This time, however, he checks his instinctive facility for figurative language; we hear the voice of the narrator, McNulty, more than the voice of the author, who further indulges a new-found ascetic streak by not shaping the torrid events of the novel into much of a plot.

McNulty might have been created to challenge lazy thinking about victimhood – both national and individual – while also complicating ideas about masculinity. We see him as a soldier who witnesses (and participates in) atrocities against Native Americans and black slaves; we also see him as a refugee from the Irish famine and as a secret cross-dresser who relishes being the object of male fantasy while working as a transvestite dancer in a bar. Later, we see him in a same-sex marriage, raising a Sioux servant girl as a daughter.

The action – a war story punctuated by momentary domestic happiness – takes place over a couple of decades in the middle of the 19th century. When we first meet McNulty, he has fled Sligo by stowing away to Canada (“No one wanted us . . . We were only rats”), surviving who knows how amid the mass burial of unluckier migrants and rumours of cannibalism (“I am not saying I saw that”). Dressed in an “old wheat-sack, tied at the waist”, he is sheltering from the rain when he encounters Cole, a fellow wanderer whose clothes are worn out at the crotch. To spare his own blushes, rather than those of the man who will become his comrade and lover, McNulty does his best not to notice.

Barry’s decision to lay out his narrative in sprawling, un-signposted paragraphs, barely shaped by “the general going on of things” that they describe, gives a sharp sense of McNulty as an individual buffeted by history. When Cole seems to be fatally ill, McNulty tells us: “But we are two boys among thousands. No one gets a ticket to the ball.” His unvarying tone treads the line between equanimity and nihilism, no matter what disaster comes his way. “I ain’t got no argument with it, just saying it is so” is a formulation that recurs, rephrased, over and over again.

That McNulty is so often unfazed serves to amplify the horror of what he and his comrades inflict on the Native Americans, for “two dollars per scalp”. His impassive narration is also a strength when it comes to the portrayal of his sexuality, which simply exists, not tucked away to be wheeled out for the sake of pathos or a resounding revelation. The moment when McNulty and Cole marry, after a visit to a “half-blind” preacher, may be the closest that this novel comes to making a joke, but there is nothing exploitative in his account of their relationship.

The problem in this bold novel, which I admired immensely, is that its sense of ­reserve, largely an asset, overlooks the dramatic potential of anger or even simple perplexity. Eventually you can’t help but feel that what you get instead – the shrug – comes too easily. Razing an indigenous camp, McNulty recalls how “that old ancient Cromwell” said “he would leave nothing alive” to make Ireland “a paradise”.

“Now we make this American paradise I guess,” he says. “Guess it be strange so many Irish boys doing this work. Ain’t that the way of the world.” 

Days Without End by Sebastian Barry is published by Faber & Faber (272pp, £17.99)

This article appears in the 15 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special 2016