I had not read any books by Sebastian Barry before, and when I read some of the reviews of this book I realised that the author has been chronicling, in some of his novels, the story of two Irish families. One of the protagonists of this story, and its narrator, Thomas McNulty, is a descendant of one of these families. Rest assured that you don’t need to have read Barry’s other novels to enjoy this one (I didn’t find out about this until I had finished reading it) but now that I know I confess I’d like to see how they all relate to each other.
Thomas is a young boy who ends up in America fleeing the Irish famine and we follow him through his many adventures. Very early on he meets a slightly older boy, John Cole, and they are inseparable throughout the story, or almost. In XIX century America they live through many experiences: they take to the stage dressed as girls to entertain miners (who have no women around); when they are old enough they join the army and fight in the Indian Wars. They later go back to the stage, this time with Thomas playing the girl (a part he enjoys), John her suitor and an Indian girl they’ve adopted, Winona, as their side act. As times get harder, they go back to the army, this time fighting for the North in the Civil War. And… it goes on.
The book is narrated in the first person by Thomas, who has a very peculiar voice, full of expressions appropriate to the historical era, some Irish terms, colloquialisms, witty and humorous saying, poetic passages and amateur philosophical reflexions. In some ways it reminded me of novels narrated by tricksters or other adventurers (I’ve seen people mention Huckleberry Finn, although the characters and the plot are quite different and so is the language used), but although Thomas is somebody determined to survive and easy-going, he never wishes anybody harm and seems warm and kind-hearted, even if he sometimes ends up doing things he lives to regret. I know some readers don’t enjoy first-person narrations. Whilst it can put you right inside the skin of the character, it also makes it more difficult to get to know other characters and if you don’t like the way a character talks, well, that’s it. Although I really enjoyed Thomas and the use of language, I know it won’t be for everybody, so I recommend checking it out first. Some reviews say that he is too articulate, but although we don’t know all the details of the character’s background, he is clearly literate and corresponds and talks to people from all walks of life through the book (poets, actors, priests, the major and his wife). And he is clearly clever, quick, and a good observer.
Although the story is set in America in mid-XIX century and recounts a number of historical events, these are told from a very special perspective (this is not History with a capital H, but rather an account of what somebody who had to live through and endure situations he had no saying on felt about the events), and I this is not a book I would recommend to readers looking for a historical treatise. Yes, Thomas and John Cole love each other and have a relationship through the whole book and Thomas wears a dress often. There is little made of this and Thomas is better at talking about events and other people than at discussing his own feelings (and that, perhaps, makes the snippets he offers us all the more touching). Although perhaps the historical accuracy of some parts of the story (mostly about the characters’ relationship) stretches the imagination, the descriptions of the battles of the Indian Wars and the Civil War, and especially the way those involved in them felt, are powerful and evocative, horrible and heart-wrenching. There are no true heroes or villains, just people who play their parts as cogs in machines they don’t understand. (There are funny moments like when quite a racist character discovers that he’s fighting in the pro-abolition side. His reason for fighting is because the major he’d fought under in the Indian Wars asked him to. He never thought to ask what the war was about). Thomas reflects at times upon the similarities between what is happening there and what had happened in Ireland and does not miss the irony of the situation.
I had problems choosing some quotations from the book as I’d highlighted quite a lot of it, but here go:
If you had all your limbs they took you. If you were a one-eyed boy they might take you too even so. The only pay worse than the worst pay in America was army pay.
We were two wood-shavings of humanity in a rough world.
The bottom was always falling out of something in America far as I could see.
Every little thing she says has grammar in it, she sounds like a bishop.
Things just go on. Lot of life is just like that. I look back over fifty years of life and wonder where the years went. I guess they went like that, without me noticing much. A man’s memory might have only a hundred clear days in it and he has lived thousands. Can’t do much about that.
There’s no soldier don’t have a queer little spot in his wretched heart for his enemy, that’s just a fact. Maybe only on account of him being alive in the same place and at the same time and we are all just customers of the same three-card trickster. Well, who knows the truth of it all.
He is as dapper as a mackerel.
How we going to count all the souls to be lost in this war?
Men so sick they are dying of death. Strong men to start that are hard to kill.
Killing hurts the heart and soils the soul.
I loved the story and the characters and I hope to read more novels by Barry in the future. I recommend it to readers who enjoy historical fiction and westerns, with a big pinch of salt, those who love narrators with a distinctive voice, and fans of Barry. From now on I count myself among them.
Thanks to Faber and Faber and to NetGalley for offering me an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review.