A Thousand Moons by Sebastian Barry

Faber and Faber Ltd/ 19 March 2020/ 256 pages/ Kindle edition/ 5*

Three years ago I read Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End which has to be one of the best books I’ve read, so I began reading A Thousand Moons with great anticipation of a good read. I wasn’t disappointed and I loved it. It continues the story of Thomas McNulty and John Cole, and Winona, the young Indian girl they had adopted. It really helps if you have read Days Without End first to understand the characters’ history and relationships and how they got to this stage in their lives.

Winona is a young Lakota orphan adopted by former soldiers Thomas McNulty and John Cole.
Living with Thomas and John on the farm they work in 1870s Tennessee, she is educated and loved, forging a life for herself beyond the violence and dispossession of her past. But the fragile harmony of her unlikely family unit, in the aftermath of the Civil War, is soon threatened by a further traumatic event, one which Winona struggles to confront, let alone understand.

They are living and working on a farm owned by Lige Magan in Tennessee, about seven miles from a little town called Paris. It is now the 1870s, some years after the end of the Civil War, but the town was still full of rough Union soldiers and vagabonds on every little byway. Dark skin and black hair were enough to get you beaten up – and it wasn’t a crime to beat an Indian. Life wasn’t any better for the other two workers on the farm, black ex-slaves, Rosalee Bouguereau and her brother, Tennyson. These are dangerous times not just in the town but also in the woods outside the town from Zach Petrie’s gang of ‘nightriders’.

Winona remembers little of her early life, beyond seeing in the back of her mind a ‘blackened painting’ of blood and screaming, bayonets, bullets, fire and death. But their lives are full of love at the farm; Winona is loved as a daughter by Thomas and John, who are themselves lovers. She works for lawyer Briscoe as his clerk and ventures into town for supplies, which was where she met Jas Jonski, a young man who declares he wants to marry her. At first she hopes that she might very much like to marry Jas. But, then things go disastrously wrong. First racism rears its ugly head as Jas is white and the Paris townspeople began to talk. As his employer said he thought Jas had gone mad or wicked in some way – ‘to want to go marrying something closer to a monkey than a man’ was how he put it.

And then came the dreadful day when Winona was brutally attacked so badly that she shook for two weeks and something deep within her was shaking a long time after. She can’t remember at first what had actually happened to her, except that she was plied with ‘distillery whiskey’, nor who had carried out the assault. But all the signs pointed to Jas Jonski. Then Tennyson Bouguereau was also attacked, and their peaceful happy life was shattered. Winona set out for revenge. And in so doing she began to remember more about her early life and about her mother, a strong Lakota woman, full of courage and pride.

‘A thousand moons’ was her mother’s deepest measure of time. To her time was ‘a kind of hoop or a circle not a long string and if you walked far enough she said you could find the people still living in the long ago’ – ‘a thousand years all at once’. As she sets off on her quest it is the thought of her mother’s courage that enabled Winona to find her own courage – the ‘courage of a thousand years’.

I just love everything about this book, so beautifully written, rendering the way the characters speak so that I could hear them, and describing the landscape so poetically and lyrically that the scenes unfolded before my eyes; and the characters too, all real people from the American West of the 1870s, as though I was there in their midst. It would make a superb film.

Sebastian Barry

Photo credit: ©Alan Betson, The Irish Times

Sebastian Barry was born in Dublin in 1955. His novels and plays have won, among other awards, the Kerry Group Irish Fiction Prize, the Costa Book of the Year award, the Irish Book Awards Best Novel, the Independent Booksellers Prize and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. He also had two consecutive novels, A Long Long Way (2005) and The Secret Scripture (2008), shortlisted for the MAN Booker Prize. He lives in Wicklow with his wife and three children.

My thanks to Faber and Faber Ltd for my copy of this book, via NetGalley.

Days Without End by Sebastian Barry

Days Without End

Hardcover, 259 pages, published October 20th 2016 by Faber & Faber
 
Source: Library Book
 
My Rating: 5*

 

Blurb:

After signing up for the US army in the 1850s, aged barely seventeen, Thomas McNulty and his brother-in-arms, John Cole, fight in the Indian Wars and the Civil War. Having both fled terrible hardships, their days are now vivid and filled with wonder, despite the horrors they both see and are complicit in. Then when a young Indian girl crosses their path, the possibility of lasting happiness seems within reach, if only they can survive.

My thoughts:

This is without doubt one of the best books I’ve read this year. I was spellbound, the storytelling is superb, the characters are unforgettable, and the setting comes across so vividly that I had no difficulty in imagining the locations. Add to that the narration written in Thomas McNulty’s own uneducated voice, fluent and richly descriptive and so easy to read, despite the mix of Irish and American slang.

Thomas is writing, looking back on their lives, to a time when it seemed that years of their lives were endless:

Time was not something then we thought of as an item that possessed an ending, but something that would go on for ever, all rested and stopped in that moment. Hard to say what I mean by that. You look back at all the endless years when you never had that thought. I am doing that now as I write these words in Tennessee. I am thinking of the days without end of my life. (page 39)

He is a young Irish immigrant, 17 years old when he and his friend John Cole volunteered to join the US army. Thomas, had left Sligo, starved and destitute, for Canada and then made his way to America where he had met John under a hedge in a downpour and they became friends and secretly lovers for life. He describes John Cole as ‘my love, all my love.‘  They began their life together working in a saloon in Daggesville, dancing and dressed as girls, until they were seventeen and they could no longer pass as girls:

But nature will have his way and bit by bit the bloom wore off us, and we was more like boys than girls, and more like men than women. John Cole anyhow in particular  saw big changes in them two years. He was beginning to give giraffes a run for their money, height-wise. Mr Noone couldn’t find dresses to fit him and Mrs Carmody couldn’t stitch fast enough. It was the end of an era, God knowed. One of the happiest works I ever had. (Page 12)

The fact of their love underlies the whole book. But the next stage of their lives was so different, fighting in the Indian wars against the Native Americans as the settlers moved west and then in the Civil War. I’m not keen on reading about wars, battles or fights of any kind but I found the descriptions in this novel were exceptional, truly heart-rending, although I would have preferred fewer scenes of war and massacre. Barry doesn’t spare the details and clearly depicts the horror and waste of war, commenting in Thomas’s voice: Killing hurts the heart and soils the soil (page 225).

After the wars have come to an end they leave the army and the rest of the book follows their lives together with Winona, a young Indian girl, who they come to regard as their daughter. But danger is never far away …

In a way I thought it was odd how this book held my attention. I was surprised by a number of things – the very long paragraphs, sometimes extending to several pages  – the strange grammatical errors and figures of speech, and at times passages written in the present tense. And yet, Barry’s prose is so lyrical and poetic that I think this is what made the book so compelling to read. Each time I picked it up to read I became lost in its pages. It is not perfect, but then I often find that that doesn’t matter when I’m so totally captivated by the writing, which is why I’ve given this book 5 stars.

Amazon UK link

My Week in Books: 18 October 2017

This Week in Books is a weekly round-up hosted by Lypsyy Lost & Found, about what I’ve been reading Now, Then & Next.

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A similar meme,  WWW Wednesday is run by Taking on a World of Words.

Now: I’m currently reading Days Without End by Sebastian Barry, a book I’ve borrowed from the library. It was awarded the Costa Book Award 2016 and won the 2017 Walter Scott Prize. It was also longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2017.

Days Without End

Blurb:

After signing up for the US army in the 1850s, aged barely seventeen, Thomas McNulty and his brother-in-arms, John Cole, fight in the Indian Wars and the Civil War. Having both fled terrible hardships, their days are now vivid and filled with wonder, despite the horrors they both see and are complicit in. Then when a young Indian girl crosses their path, the possibility of lasting happiness seems within reach, if only they can survive.

I’m enjoying this book, narrated by Thomas McNulty in his own style of speech, grammatically incorrect and in Irish and American slang – surprisingly easy to read.

Then: I’ve recently finished reading The Last Hours by Minette Walters, which will be published on 2 November in hardback and as en e-book. My review will follow soon.

The Last Hours

Blurb:

June, 1348: the Black Death enters England through the port of Melcombe in the county of Dorsetshire. Unprepared for the virulence of the disease, and the speed with which it spreads, the people of the county start to die in their thousands.

In the estate of Develish, Lady Anne takes control of her people’s future – including the lives of two hundred bonded serfs. Strong, compassionate and resourceful, Lady Anne chooses a bastard slave, Thaddeus Thurkell, to act as her steward. Together, they decide to quarantine Develish by bringing the serfs inside the walls. With this sudden overturning of the accepted social order, where serfs exist only to serve their lords, conflicts soon arise. Ignorant of what is happening in the world outside, they wrestle with themselves, with God and with the terrible uncertainty of their futures.

Lady Anne’s people fear starvation but they fear the pestilence more. Who amongst them has the courage to leave the security of the walls?

And how safe is anyone in Develish when a dreadful event threatens the uneasy status quo..?

Next: I think I’ll read The Fear Index by Robert Harris. This is another book I’ve borrowed from the library and having dipped into it I’m itching to read it.

The Fear Index

Blurb:

His name is carefully guarded from the general public but within the secretive inner circles of the ultra-rich Dr Alex Hoffmann is a legend – a visionary scientist whose computer software turns everything it touches into gold.

Together with his partner, an investment banker, Hoffmann has developed a revolutionary form of artificial intelligence that tracks human emotions, enabling it to predict movements in the financial markets with uncanny accuracy. His hedge fund, based in Geneva, makes billions.

But then in the early hours of the morning, while he lies asleep with his wife, a sinister intruder breaches the elaborate security of their lakeside house. So begins a waking nightmare of paranoia and violence as Hoffmann attempts, with increasing desperation, to discover who is trying to destroy him.

His quest forces him to confront the deepest questions of what it is to be human. By the time night falls over Geneva, the financial markets will be in turmoil and Hoffmann’s world – and ours – transformed forever.

Have you read any of these books?  Do any of them tempt you? And what have you been reading this week?

Library Books

I reserved these books over the last few months and, wouldn’t you know it, they all arrived practically together!

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A Darker Domain by Val McDermid. This is the second Karen Pirie book. I’ve borrowed it because I loved the first one, The Distant Echo. In 1984, in Fife, heiress Catriona Maclennan Grant & her baby son are kidnapped. The ransom payoff goes horribly wrong. She is killed while her son disappears without trace. 2008, Tuscany. A jogger stumbles upon dramatic new evidence that re-opens the cold case. For Detective Sergeant Karen Pirie, it’s an opportunity to make her mark.

Conclave by Robert Harris – I’ve thoroughly enjoyed other books by Robert Harris, so I’m keen to read this one about how a new Pope is chosen as the cardinals meet in the Sistine chapel to cast their votes. This is a novel and Harris depicts the cardinals as holy men – but ambitious and rivals to become the most powerful spiritual figure on earth.

The Hidden Life of Trees:What They Feel, How They Communicate – Discoveries from a Secret World by Peter Wohlleben. I read Katrina’s review of this book and immediately thought it sounded an amazing book as I love trees. Wohlleben is a German forester and his book is about his love of trees and why they matter on a global scale. He makes the case that the forest is a social network – I like the idea that they communicate with each other – even if they don’t actually walk and talk like Tolkien’s ents.

Days Without End by Sebastian Barry – I loved his book, The Secret Scripture and am hoping I’ll like this one too. Thomas McNulty and John Coles signed up for the US army in the 1850s and fought in the Indian Wars and then in the American Civil War. The book was awarded the Costa Book Award 2016 and won the 2017 Walter Scott Prize. It was also longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2017 – not that winning these awards automatically means that I’ll like it and I’m often not keen on books about war.