Love amid wartime horrors

Days Without End by Sebastian Barry (above) tells a first-person story of an Irish boy who joins the American army.
Days Without End by Sebastian Barry (above) tells a first-person story of an Irish boy who joins the American army.PHOTO: FABER & FABER

Lyrical but heavy-hearted, savage yet tender, this first-person tale of an Irish boy who joins the American army is one of survival and love.

It is not the wartime horrors alone that make his journey memorable, but the unconventional, convincing story of how he forms a family with a fellow soldier and a Native American girl they come to regard as their daughter.

Thomas McNulty is a 15-year-old looking for work with his companion John Cole, a "dandy-looking sort of boy" whom he met by chance under a hedge in Missouri.

They find jobs in a saloon in a district with hundreds of rough miners. For 50 cents each, they put on dresses, dancing with the men who offer them gifts and ask for their hand in marriage.


    • Days Without End by Sebastian Barry tells a first-person story of an Irish boy who joins the American army.DAYS WITHOUT END

      By Sebastian Barry

      Faber & Faber/Paperback/259 pages/ $32.05/Books Kinokuniya/4/5 stars

"Maybe we were like memories of elsewhere. Maybe we were the girls of their youth, the girls they had first loved," recalls McNulty.

Puberty puts an end to their dancing days. The pair leave to volunteer for the US army instead in 1851, going on to fight in the Indian Wars, the armed conflicts that took place as the US government tried to take control of North America from the indigenous people.

Barry's storytelling shifts from romantic, almost nostalgic in the dancing scenes, to brutal and unflinching on the battlefield.

In a terrible scene, told in tight, relentless prose, the soldiers slaughter a group of Native Americans whose encampment had been set ablaze - only to realise their victims were all women and children.

The immersive prose takes readers down a vivid road of complex interactions with Native American communities and the American Civil War, a bloody conflict which saw the Union facing secessionists from Southern states.

And it is the faces of those who perish in battle, like a young drummer boy found with his head blown off, that give the violence a dash of reality.

But there is more to this backdrop of death, as McNulty and Cole become "parents" to a Sioux girl they take from her tribe during the vicious conflicts. They name her Winona and they live peacefully on a prairie after leaving the army.

But a military figure from their past returns to claim the girl.

The major's wife and daughter have been killed by Winona's uncle, who still has one hostage, the Major's other child. Winona's uncle wants his niece back in exchange for the hostage.

This last plot twist, which comes late in the book, comes as a surprise and remains underdeveloped.

Deeper emotional development of characters such as McNulty towards the end - not as military men, but as parents, lovers and family - would have helped to make this transition feel less abrupt.

If you like this book, read: The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain (Random House, 2016, $28.95, Books Kinokuniya), about the journey of a boy who grew up during World War II in Switzerland and and his life-long friendship with another man.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 31, 2017, with the headline 'Love amid wartime horrors'. Print Edition | Subscribe