‘Days Without End’ by Sebastian Barry

A magnificent, heartfelt left-of-centre novel by one of Ireland’s best, Days Without End is a compassionate narrative set in mid-19th century US where two best friends, signing up for the army, find themselves in the midst of the Indian Wars and, just a few years later, the Civil War.

Impoverished teenage drifter Thomas McNulty, survivor of the Irish Famine, the horrors of the Atlantic crossing to Canada and the aimless wanderings of survival (from Quebec to Missouri) meets an equally destitute John Cole, three years his senior. They join forces, two wood-shavings of humanity in a rough world – and from an early age, become lovers.

A slight and pretty young thing, McNulty secures the two work as prairie fairies, adolescent boys dressed as girls to dance with clients in the rough, men-only mining town of Daggsville. For three years, the two survive surprisingly unmolested – there was never a moment of unwelcome movementsBut nature will have his way and bit by bit the bloom wore off us, and we was more like boys than girls, more like men than women, and soon we were going to be just memories of diamonds in Daggsville.

And so to the US Army the two enlist and a horseback journey from Missouri to California. It’s an exhausting journey of deprivation, hunger, fever and death as well as fear. This is Indian country. And it soon becomes clear they are being sent west to protect the new European settlers of northern California.

Both epic and intimate, Days Without End is as grand and harrowing as the landscapes they cross. Left awestruck by the natural beauty of their surrounds, the unit is also laid low by the violence and conflicts that leave men making the noises of ill-butchered cattle as both indigenous Oglala Sioux and European settlers look to retain/stake a claim on the land. Hunger drives both ‘sides’ to extremes as the natural environmental balance is upset by migrants flocking from the east. It’s a brutal period – mirrored only a few years later by the horrors of the civil war.

Yet, Days Without End is not purely western or a civil war tale. Its lyrical beauty and poetic prose is a narrative of truth and understanding in amongst the brutality and deprivation of war. McNulty and Cole’s love for each other blooms – in the northern Californian plains, the notorious Confederate prison, Andersonville, or treading the boards in Grand Rapids ‘between wars’. Where there’s life, there’s hope seems to be Barry’s message. It’s a captivating, remarkable novel that any attempt to describe in detail is bound in failure. Inexplicably, having been long listed for the 2017 Booker Prize, Days Without End failed to make the shortlist of six and which saw George Saunders and Lincoln in the Bardo win the award.

‘Reservoir 13’ by Jon McGregor

A young teenage girl, on holiday with her parents, disappears and the villagers are called upon to join the search. ‘They gathered in the car park in the hour before dawn and waited to be told what to do. It was cold and there was little conversation. There were questions that weren’t being asked. The missing girl’s name was Rebecca Shaw… A mist hung low across the moor and the ground was frozen hard.’ 

So begins Jon McGregor’s haunting novel of grace and beauty as time passes, the girl remains missing and the village returns to its everyday. Reservoir 13 charts that everyday, a portrait of the life in the village and its surrounds – a farming community struggling with change as the kids look to leave and families are hit hard by the impact of supermarkets and big business in the next valley. 

But McGregor’s magical novel is not an episodic soap opera. Yes – characters in the village come and go; plans for the Christmas pantomime and New Year’s fireworks are discussed; the foxes and badgers in the coppice mate and raise their young. But in his fluid prose and long, unbroken paragraphs full of life and detail, McGregor gives voice to an array of moments, a sequencing of narrative events that merge into magical and evocative storytelling. ‘Nelson’s barking shifted up a pitch and the door shook as he clattered against it, and then Mr Wilson opened up with a smile. By the packhorse bridge a heron paced through the mud at the river’s edge, head bobbing, feet lifted awkwardly high. The weather on the hills was fine for September, and the scoured stacks of gritstone that made up Black Bull Rocks were warm to the touch. In a hollow deep between the stones, James and Lynsey had found a comfortable spot and were making up for lost time.’

But always, never very far away, is the enigma of the missing girl and the expectation of her discovery. The rhythms of village life and nature beyond unfold – the cows need milking, the sheep lost on the moors found, the Harvest Festival display arranged. Time is invested: babies are born, the butcher loses first his business quickly followed by his wife, the primary school Principal retires, the female vicar leaves to take up a position in Manchester and is not replaced. But around every corner and through every closed doorway (or off-limits cave), the expectation is the discovery of Rebecca’s body.

Reservoir 13 is not a murder mystery; it is a meditation on time and a reflection on the art of storytelling and narrative traditions. Ingenious.

Whilst the winner of the 2017 Costa Book Award, Reservoir 13 inexplicably failed to make the shortlist of the 2017 Man Booker Prize (which was won by George Saunders and Lincoln in the Bardo).