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Famine, war and love: Bron Sibree talks to Sebastian Barry about his new novel Days Without End

In his new novel Sebastian Barry writes as if galloping with the wind in his hair. By Bron Sibree for the Sunday Times

 
Days Without EndDays Without End
Sebastian Barry (Faber & Faber)
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Sebastian Barry once said that “language is almost not about language, it’s possibly more about music”. And nowhere is this more evident than in this acclaimed Irish novelist’s new and ninth novel, Days Without End.

Narrated by Sligo-born Thomas McNulty, who journeys from Ireland to the New World on a “coffin ship” after the great famine of 1847 leaves him orphaned and starving at 15, it reads as if Barry has ridden those wild “unbroken horses of language” that he has so often spoken about on a surefooted, rhythmic gallop all the way from Ireland to the American Mid-West.

Days Without End is a mesmerising, melodic account of McNulty’s life as he recalls his years fighting in the Indian wars and in the American Civil War alongside the love of his life, John Cole. It is also a deeply affecting, redemptive love story and an unblinkered portrait of what Barry calls “the murderous birth of the young American nation”.

Barry is, of course, as famous for his melodic prose as he is for transforming half-buried family memories and the scraps of long forgotten lives into novels of heart-stopping beauty. Novels that chronicle a forgotten history of Ireland and have won him two Booker nominations, the Costa Book of the Year award, the Irish Book Awards Best Novel and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, to name some.

But it is as if the 61-year-old poet, playwright and novelist has hit a soaring grace note in the writing of Days Without End, which, too, owes its genesis to a scrap of family lore. A scrap divulged to him as a child by his grandfather whose own story Barry told in The Temporary Gentleman.

“He said that his great uncle had gone off to America somewhere in the previous century and had fought in the Indian wars. I don’t think he knew anything more.”

For Barry, that was “an absolute gift. With The Temporary Gentleman I was struggling in a way with knowing too much. With a book like this you can leave yourself completely open to the voice when you’re fortunate enough to start hearing it.”

Barry says “writing is a fatal activity for a writer; seeing and hearing is the thing”. He read extensively about the history of the era for a year (he does this for all his novels), including obscure first-hand accounts of ordinary people who had been alive in the US in the middle decades of the 1800s, “to get a hold of the whistletune of the day”.

He then spent another year waiting on the voice of McNulty and the opening lines of the novel. He describes this as “literally a process of sitting stiller and stiller at my work table in the old rectory in Whitlow, so that he could enter in and prove Einstein’s theory of continuous time to be correct; that we may regard these things as past and ‘the past’, but in a way everything is happening all the time, still. I’ve been a happy person since that day, because it was as if you have received a handshake up through the decades.”

It’s no accident either, that the book is dedicated to his son Toby who three years ago came out as gay at the age of 16, and who “gave me this whole new terrain to think about. And I do feel that this book is kind of my magic spell for Toby and for all people who in their glory have had suggested to them that they’re inglorious, which I think is one of the most disgusting things in our lifetime.”

It’s a novel that, like almost all his novels, reaches into the past, yet somehow posits a way forward. “You’re writing out of the past, but it’s a kind of spell or a secular prayer to play something in a future.”

He is acutely aware too, that books have their own purpose independent of the writer. “Books have their secret undertaking and it intrigued me greatly that this book had its own arguments to make with history and politics and the present.”

Indeed, Days Without End has taken on a contemporary resonance with Donald Trump’s strident US election campaign, in which the note of “exultant hatred” toward immigrants and people of colour — which was so rife in the 1800s world of the novel — resurfaced.

“That’s why I don’t think there’s any such thing as an historical novel as such, there’s only a book that is talking into the present, which of course,” adds Barry, “is shortly to be a history itself.”

Follow @BronSibree

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