book review: Days Without End by Sebastian Barry

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DAYS WITHOUT END by Sebastian Barry
★☆☆☆☆
Viking, 2017

 

You know what’s tragic? When you find a book that seems tailor made for you, and then you end up not clicking with it at all. If we’re going down a checklist, Days Without End is everything I should love: contemporary Irish lit, LGBT protagonist(s), a blend of literary and historical fiction, depressing, lyrical prose; hell, my copy even has a quote from Kazuo Ishiguro (one of my all-time favorite writers) on the cover.

No one is more surprised than I am that I hated it so much.

First, I want to make this clear – Days Without End is not a bad book. I don’t think the Man Booker panel or the myriad of reviewers who gave this 5 stars are crazy at all. My one-star rating is very much on me.

My main problem with this book is that I found the narrative voice almost impossible to follow. The fusion of dialect and lyricism didn’t add up for me – the protagonist, Thomas McNulty, is an uneducated young man, which is reflected in the improper grammar used by Sebastian Barry in his first-person narration… but then you’d also have sentences like “Empurpled rapturous hills I guess and the long day brushstroke by brushstroke enfeebling into darkness and then the fires blooming on the pitch plains.” If you’re committing to capturing an authentic voice to such an extent that you’re writing your entire book in dialect, how is this level of poetic imagery consistent with that? I thought the internal logic of Thomas’s narration was filled to the brim with contradictions, and it pulled me out of the story again and again. I also couldn’t reconcile the fact that this character was raised in Ireland, and he was talking like he was straight out of a John Wayne western. My brain just had the hardest time following this prose. I’d only be able to read 5 or 10 pages at a time before I started to zone out (which is why I’d been reading this since November).

This kind of goes hand in hand, but as for the story itself, I was bored out of my mind. There was little to no emotional depth here – this was a very monotonous account of the Indian Wars and the Civil War. Brutality is relayed with dispassionate narration (I realize this is The Point, but it did not work for me); characters had indistinct personalities; I still don’t feel like I know the first thing about Thomas or the great love of his life, John Cole. This is one of those books where I could have read the first and last chapter and skipped everything in between, and I would have had the exact same experience with it. Well, I actually would have had a better experience with it, if I’d only had to read Barry’s lifeless prose for 20 pages rather than 250. But as for the plot, I don’t think I would have missed much.

Ultimately, I didn’t get anything out of Days Without End besides frustration. Emotionally this book left me cold and intellectually I failed to engage with it. But again, I am in the clear minority… if you’re curious about picking this up, go for it. You’ll know by the second page whether the narrative voice works for you. I should have trusted my gut and dropped it then and there.

30 thoughts on “book review: Days Without End by Sebastian Barry

    • Right?? I can’t believe Ishiguro betrayed me like this… I can sort of see why some people love this but for me it was a pretty painful reading experience. I definitely support you in running far far away!

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    • Right??? I was CONVINCED I was going to love this, but I don’t even think it was a case of mismanaged expectations – I just did not get on with the writing style at all. I firmly believe this is a love-it-or-hate-it book so I’ll be really curious to see what you think!

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  1. I have read a lot of negative reviews over this book that reflect your thoughts. I was intrigued when I read the blurb and saw it on sale at my local booskshop, but I don’t think I’ll ever be able to read it — and your review only made me want to back away even more. It’s a really good review, and what an awful quote there…

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    • I’m so mad that I actually paid money for this, but I was lured in by the Kazuo Ishiguro praise! I definitely support your decision to stay away, especially if you don’t like that quote. That’s one of the ‘prettier’ ones in the whole book.

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  2. I have tried to read this as well and your thoughts on the mix between dialect and poetic imagery are SO on point. I always struggle with books written in dialect but this one did not click with me at all even beside that problem. Unlike you I have no plans to continue though.

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    • Oh, I’m so glad to hear this, I haven’t actually talked about this book with anyone who’s read it. Or attempted to read it. You absolutely made the right call to give it up. Ironically, the only thing that kept me from DNFing it was that I’d included it in my 5 star predictions and I really wanted to give it a fair chance. But I also struggle with books written in dialect and my heart sank after reading the very first page because I just knew it wasn’t going to go well.

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      • I felt really bad as well because it won the Costa and I often like the books who win there (except Eleanor Oliphant and this one) but I just knew I would just struggle the whole time.

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      • I’m so baffled that it won the Costa. I totally get its inclusion on the Man Booker longlist because the Booker is pretentious as hell (I say this with love) but I always think of the Costa as rewarding more accessible books? I can grudgingly acknowledge the literary merit of Days Without End, but its enjoyability?? Nah.

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      • Simon over at SavigeReads judged the Costa First Novel Award this year and he said their prompt was “The book you’d hand the most people”… Which this one surely isn’t.

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    • Thank you! I know what you mean, I hate the reviews that bash readers who loved the book, especially when the reviewer clearly doesn’t want to admit that the book largely went over their head – I’ll be the first to admit that here!

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    • You made the right call to DNF!!! God this was painful to get through. I really wanted to make sure I was giving it a fair chance, but those were many hours of my life I’m not getting back. I’m glad someone agrees, there is so much love for this book and while I sort of get it I’m also a little surprised that this writing style works for so many people!

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  3. This was 5 stars for me, but I totally get what you’re saying. I agree we didn’t get to know anything about his “beau”, for whatever reason the contradictions and omissions worked for me. Trust your gut!

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    • Likewise I absolutely understand the love for this book, and I’m sad I didn’t click with it more. I think if I’d have gotten along better with the writing style, I wouldn’t have minded the omissions about these characters, but since the writing was grating for me I was just trying to latch onto something to connect with. My refusal to DNF is honestly so stupid sometimes, like when it takes me over 4 months to get through a 250 page book, so maybe I will live and learn one of these days.

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  4. […] 1. Days Without End by Sebastian Barry.  I’m giving this book the coveted #1 spot because the rest of this list didn’t give me the same crushing disappointment that this one did.  On paper, this should be everything I love in a book: it’s Irish, it’s literary, it’s sad, it’s historical, it’s about a queer relationship, it’s blurbed by Kazuo Ishiguro.  What I hadn’t counted on is that it is also just painfully boring and written in almost impenetrable dialect.  If you click with the bizarre narrative voice that fuses dialect with lyricism in a way that I found stilted and arbitrary, you probably won’t have any problems with this book, but if you struggle on page 1 you will struggle all the way through, which I found out the hard way.  Full review here. […]

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