History must be filled with gay love stories whether they were lived in secret or in the open. Although literature and history books are filled with heterosexual love stories, few stories of same-sex couples have been passed down through generations. So I think one of the great opportunities of historical fiction can be to imagine the lives and stories which we have no record of and that have, most probably, been selectively left out of history. Recent novels such as “Hide” by Matthew Griffin and “A Place Called Winter” by Patrick Gale have meaningfully explored stories of long-term gay relationships and the unique challenges and opportunities they faced in their respective time periods. Sebastian Barry does the same in “Days Without End” with the story of an Irishman named Thomas McNulty who escapes the Irish famine to become a soldier in 19th century America where he meets another handsome soldier named John Cole. But Barry’s inspiration for this novel comes from a specific incident and takes a very unique slant on a historical gay relationship.
I saw Barry give a reading from this novel and he explained how some time ago he noticed that his son was becoming increasingly depressed. One day the son finally confessed to Barry and his wife that he’s gay and he experienced a lot of prejudice for this. So part of what Barry wanted to do in this story was imagine a time and place where his son could have a loving same-sex relationship, build a family and not have to live with the institutionalized prejudices of today’s society. This may seem contradictory when many Western countries have increasingly liberal laws about gay rights, but these values don’t always filter down into smaller communities - especially among teenagers. Barry feels that there were different kinds of opportunities for gay couples in mid-1800s America to live (if not entirely openly) more peacefully without today’s virulent prejudice. Of course, homosexuality wasn’t openly condoned and people faced many other life-threatening challenges during this politically turbulent time as he recounts in detail in the novel. Thomas states how “We were two wood-shavings of humanity in a rough world.”
This is the first novel I’ve read by Sebastian Barry, but I understand it’s part of a group of books that deal with the McNulty family. It seems like a novel that can stand entirely independent on its own without having read the others. Thomas arrives in America without any connection to his relatives except for the memories of their slowly dying which haunts him later in the book. Here he must forge a future for himself entirely on his own and one of the few work opportunities available to a young man such as himself was to become a soldier in the US military. He’s sent to fight in the bloody battles of the Indian War and then later with the North during the American Civil War. The overwhelming impression of Thomas’ impassioned and vivid accounts of these conflicts is how they are populated by soldiers who are victims of their circumstances; they are fighting in wars not out of ideological convictions but because they have no other choice.
It’s particularly moving how Barry writes about the way Thomas is mindful of “the enemy.” He observes 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 the same time and we are all just customers of the same three-card trickster. Well, who knows the truth of it all.” Like all wars, the armies are filled with young men trapped in the conflicts of history. It’s easier for them to fight without conscience when the opposition is markedly different from them such as the Native Americans they fought against. However, Thomas takes a different perspective when battling against the armies of the South which were also in part made of young immigrants or the sons of immigrants: “It is not like running at Indians who are not your kind but it is running at a mirror of yourself. Those Johnny Rebs are Irish, English and all the rest.” Barry really movingly portrays the consciousness of this soldier caught in these battles who is in some fundamental way only killing other versions of himself.
The novel also gives a fascinating perspective on gender and sexuality. Hyper-masculine environments such as army camps and mining towns found improvised ways of providing men with romantic/erotic stimulation. Thomas and John join a sort of cabaret where they entertain audiences of men while dressed in drag. This allows for transformations to occur: “In Mr Noone’s hall you just was what you seemed. Acting ain’t no subterfuge-ing trickery. Strange magic changing things. You thinking along some lines and so you become that new thing.” There’s a kind of liberation in this where people aren’t constricted by traditional identity markers but can become what they want to be. It also provides crucial training for Thomas when later in the story he can utilize passing as a woman to disguise himself. Equally, it’s poignant how Thomas contemplates his own sexuality and feminine qualities where he considers these to be “Just a thing that’s in you and you can’t gainsay.” While the meaning of conflicts being fought in the battlefields remains ambiguous for Thomas, the conviction he and John feel about their desire and love for each other is certain.
History consists of a series of neatly organized dates. The American Civil War lasted from 1861 to 1865 but you can’t begin to feel the experience by just reading this. One of the most powerful things about Costa Book Awards winner "Days Without End" is the extremely dramatic sense Barry gives to the soldier’s experience who doesn’t know when this conflict will end. For Thomas “World is just a passing parade of cruel moments and long drear stretches where nothing going on but chicory drinking and whisky and cards. No requirement for nothing else tucked in there. We’re strange people, soldiers stuck out in wars.” They are perpetually caught in an uncertain present. Barry writes strikingly about this sense a high-stakes moment with no end to it. The dramatic tension builds throughout the novel as the reader wonders if Thomas will have any future other than this.