Monday, November 07, 2022

the last book I read

Days Without End by Sebastian Barry.

Tom McNulty is just a simple Irish country boy in the mid-19th century American west. And what is there for a simple Irish country boy to do in the mid-19th century American west? Well, there's always showbiz. Tom and his friend John Cole, wandering teenage wastrels both, happen into a saloon in rural Missouri where the landlord is on the lookout for an act. I mean, ideally some girls to entertain the punters, but girls being in short supply he has the idea of putting these two pretty young teenage boys into some flouncy dresses and having them cavort around the stage.

And a very fine job the boys make of it as well, and they're quite the sensation in the local area. But eventually the bloom of youth wears off them and they're a bit too burly and stubbly to convince any more, not to mention having trouble fitting into the frocks. so it's a regretful farewell to the stage and off to enlist in the army, this being the obvious other thing for young men without much of that fancy book-learnin' to do.

Plenty for army boys to do in these exciting times, not least persuading those pesky native tribes to vacate the land so that the American Dream can be enacted upon it. During the course of a particularly brutal purge of some Sioux, Tom and John find themselves entrusted with the care of Winona, a young Sioux girl whose family have been massacred. During a break from fighting they set up home together as a little family group.

It should probably be made clear at this point that Tom and John Cole are more than just good pals, topping chums, brothers in arms, etc. This is hinted slightly coyly in the early part of the book and then driven home, as it were, with this short paragraph:

Righto, then. During this period of tranquility Tom resumes his habit of wearing women's clothing, sometimes for showbiz purposes, sometimes just casually round the house.

All good things must some to an end, though, and this time it's not the natives that need quelling (though there's always a bit of that going on in the background); no, this time it's white man against white man in the American Civil War. If anything this requires wading through even more brutal slaughter than before, not to mention a period of being captured by Confederate troops, imprisoned, and barely avoiding starving to death. After finally being released they collect Winona and make their way down to Tennessee where an old army friend is running a tobacco farm and needs help. 

Once again there is a brief period of tranquility and domestic bliss, and once again it's short-lived - first some dubious characters that they met on the road on the way to Tennessee and exchanged gunfire with track them down and require further gunfire and close-range slaughtering to get rid of, and secondly word comes from Tom and John's old commanders in their Sioux-quelling days that a bargain has been struck for the return of some white hostages, but that it involves giving Winona back to what remains of her family. 

Tom re-enlists in the army and delivers Winona back to reluctantly oversee her handover. As it happens after someone looks at someone in a funny way or coughs at the wrong moment the handover descends into a hail of hot lead and arrows in both directions and Tom and Winona are just about able to escape and make their way back to Tennessee, though not without Tom having to dispatch an old colleague of his who is intent on killing Winona.

And so domestic bliss descends again. There is, however, the small matter of Tom's desertion from the army and that small and isolated incident of murder, and sure enough eventually the authorities come for him. Rather than have everyone on the farm dispatched in a climactic gun battle Tom consents to be taken away to trial. Is this finally it, or will there be a last-minute reprieve?

Well, more in that in a minute. This is variously a story of war and conflict, a love story and an empowering LGBTQ+ story - in that while obviously the central couple of Tom and John are gay there's also the element of what you might call, if you were so inclined, Tom's genderfluidity, or, if you preferred, Tom's penchant for wearing dresses. There's an oddly dreamlike quality to the whole thing that means that while some of the descriptions of people being decapitated by cannonballs are quite graphic, there's never much of a sense of immediate peril to the main protagonists (contrast, for instance, with something like Blood Meridian which is set at a similar time). The first-person viewpoint contributes, of course: unless you're doing something slightly experimental or you're going to switch viewpoints dramatically your I-guy isn't going to die halfway through the book. The whole business with Winona is slightly odd, too: she pretty much instantly switches to regarding Tom and John as surrogate parents, despite them being implicated in the wholesale slaughter of her actual family before (to their credit, obviously) saving her. And finally (PLOT SPOILER ALERT) while the temptation to give Tom a last-minute reprieve and a happy ending was evidently overwhelming, I couldn't honestly say the resulting plot swerve was very plausible.

So it was fine, but I can't say I was knocked sideways by it in quite the same way as the judges for the 2016 Costa Book Award evidently were. My list (i.e. ones I've read) for the novel award here goes: 1976, 1977, 1978, 1980, 1987, 1994, 1996, 1997, 1998, 2000, 2002, 2005, 2006, 2009, 2012, 2016, 2019. Days Without End also won the 2017 Walter Scott Prize, a relatively new award specifically dedicated to historical fiction; Wolf Hall is the only other winner I've read.

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