A miraculous match happens when a fabulous written voice is paired with an incredible narration. This combination characterizes Aiden Kelly’s reading of Sebastian Barry’s “Days Without End” (book from Viking, audio from Blackstone), which won the 2016 Costa Book of the Year awarded to Irish and UK writers.
The hero of the story is Thomas McNulty. His first-person narrative looks back 50 years to his youth, though he questions his own reliability for “the mind is a wild liar.” Thomas remembers his youth in mid-19th century America when “time was not something then that we thought of as an item that possessed an ending.”
Orphaned as a young boy, Thomas left Sligo, Ireland, on a boat that held “people so hungry they would eat themselves.” He starts his story in America at 15, and as often happens in the narrative, he blends present and past. He writes of a time when “children feel large in themselves but look like a scrap to you.” That’s when Thomas met John Cole and began a lifelong relationship with the man who “was my love, all my love.”
The story is a collage of dark and light, a love story amid war’s brutality. Their relationship began joyfully. “Let me call them our dancing days. Why the hell not?” Kelly’s narration gives full weight to Barry’s brogue and the characters’ jolliness at dressing as women to dance with miners. Too soon, Barry undercuts cheery tones, as he often does, by fusing glorious and gritty with a portrayal of miners who “come into a country and strip away all the beauty and then there is black filth in the rivers and the trees just seem to whither back like affronted maids.”
Thomas and John soon grow out of dresses and into the military, an occupation that fills much of the narrative. This starts in California’s “wild knotted country” where 300 local militia scour the land to kill Yurok Indians. Their first battle is fought through the blinding smoke of a raging fire. After smoke and battle lust clear, they learn the shadows they’ve been slaughtering are women and children. As he often does, Barry packs into his writing a one-two gut punch – a gasp at the wrenching emotional horror followed by striking imagery and stunning reflections. After hours of digging burial trenches, soldiers cover them “like we were putting pastry tops on two enormous pies.” Thomas adds one of his many rejoinders. “It’s a dark thing when the world sets no value on you or your kin and then Death comes stalking in in his bloody boots.”
Kelly’s dynamic reading of relentless battles during the Indian and Civil wars give a sense of days that, like the title, are never ending. But there are brighter bits, too. They are equally well-told with unusual fresh views of vaudeville times, loving moments between Thomas and John, and devoted care of their adopted Indian daughter. “Days Without End” has poignancy that doesn’t end.