As I began reading this novel, I was drawn back to my days reading Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy and his masterpiece Blood Meridian. Further reflection leant me in the direction of John William’s Butcher’s Crossing and Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove. Never did I expect to be lavishing Sebastian Barry’s entry into this genre as an equal upon reaching the final page. I had recently read and enjoyed his previous work, The Secret Scripture, but this novel has lifted my admiration of his work to a whole new level.
This novel is simply breathtaking. It has all the hallmarks of a coming-of-age western frontier classic but it is written with such a frantic energy that it seems that age-has-already-come. Famine, barbaric wartime cruelty, civil war and basic survival in the Wild West offer a stormy setting for the entirety of this work and the moments where the characters and reader are allowed to rest are few and far between.
Thomas McNulty and John Cole, “two wood-shavings of humanity in a rough world,” together are the calm eye in the storm where this novel is concerned. Upon meeting each other under a cart sheltering from the elements, they forge a lifelong bond that sees them endure the best and worst that humanity has to offer. The little we learn about the boys past suggests that they have already lived a lifetime of hardship and this explains their detached view of good and evil as the novel progresses.
“There is that great wailing and distress and then the pacifying waters close over everything, old Father Time washes his hands. On he plods to the next place.”
My initial impression of this novel was that it was going in the direction of Patrick DeWitt’s darkly comic western The Sisters Brothers but I imagine that Barry used these early exchanges to highlight the folly of youth and lull the reader into a false sense of security.
“Time was not something then we thought of as an item that possessed an ending, but something that would go on forever…”
Upon joining the army however, our two characters world changes forever. It is in this moment that we are introduced to the Native Americans, both good and bad, “riding like ghosts through the spectral lands.” These native peoples are not the only threat to John and Thomas, but Sioux chieftain Caught-His-Horse-First does play a major role in the course their lives take throughout the novel.
Barry’s greatest achievement in this novel for me is how he clearly highlights the duality of good and evil in almost all characters that we encounter. The most ferocious foe can offer an act of kindness or a best friend can commit an unspeakable act.
His greatest highlights undoubtedly are the exchanges between soldier and Indian, Yankee and Confederates and do-gooders and outlaws. Never before, have I read literature that perfectly encapsulates the horror and carnage of war. The fear, the bloodlust, the disorientation, the madness, the sheer manic speed as one group of men tries to cease the existence of another.
Barry describes soldiers not as heroes but as “a whole corpse gathered up into one tight fist of fear and fright.” He laments that “no one wants to do it and everyone does it.” The Irish are not pure white angels of justice either. Thomas resigns himself to the fact that there is “no such item as a virtuous people” when considering the brutality of Irish soldiers plundering and pillaging across America despite years of brutality at the hands of the British themselves.
“Everything gets shot at in America, and everything good too.”
It is not all bad though. Despite all of the epic adventures, the great escapes, devastating losses and hard wins it is the relationship of Thomas and John that this book is really about. Together they create “a little kingdom…pitched up against the darkness” and it is this that they value above all else.
Sebastian Barry kept me going right up to the end of the novel and it was a pleasure to read and review this read. Asked to pick now, I would definitely put it up there as my top read of 2016 so far. This one will be still around when awards are given out. Read it now and tell all your friends.
Would I recommend this novel to a friend?
Definitely. For me, this will be the big read on everyone’s list in the coming months. This novel has everything and will not disappoint. I will not be surprised if this book makes it to the big screen and is a huge success.
Order your copy here at the best price before they sell out.
The themes, style and plot of this novel are, to me, a nod to the great Cormac McCarthy’s work. Huge swathes of text read like Blood Meridian and then the obvious reference towards John Grady Cole’s character in All The Pretty Horses reincarnated in this novel as Handsome John Cole. Is Starling Carlton Sebastian Barry’s “Judge”?
Once again, one of Barry’s characters hails from the McNulty clan. This is a common feature in his novels.
I love this genre of American Frontier literature, click here to find out my Magnificent Seven