“Worth reading just for Barry’s flamboyant language” – A Thousand Moons by Sebastian Barry

Sebastian Barry’s A Thousand Moons continues the story of Days Without End, where Thomas, an Irish emigrant, flees the Famine, becomes a cross-dressing dance-hall act, joins the Army and falls into a relationship with John Cole. They travel across Civil War-era America and adopt Winona, a young Indian girl who survives the massacre of her family, “a daughter not a daughter but who I mother.” That novel ended with Thomas McNulty walking across Missouri and Tennessee towards this family, “I know that I can rely on the kindness of folk along the way. The ones that don’t try to rob me will feed me. That how it is in America.” A Thousand Moons continues Winona’s story, narrated by her but very much in keeping with Sebastian Barry’s belief that novels witness events, and the aftermath of those events, and in doing so brings them into existence.

A Thousand Moons announces the importance of Winona’s narrative voice immediately. She thinks of her ability to speak English and recalls how it isolated her from her tribe when first freed from the American fort where she grew up: “Only when I spoke our language could they really see me.” It is Barry’s ability to communicate that voice which makes this a striking achievement. Winona speaks a literary language, with echoes of poetry and ballads, Native American proverbs and the formality we associate with everyday speech in the nineteenth century. It not only evokes how we imagine a young girl in the 1870s might have spoken but is, helpfully, a language suited to twenty-first century sensibilities. Barry, like Cormac McCarthy’s novels of the American West, knows that the alternative to speech is violence. When Winona is raped, she reacts as a McCarthy character would: “I couldn’t speak, not even to myself, about that. So in place of speaking I thought – I will settle the matter for myself.”

More than Day Without End this is a novel that ventures into Cormac McCarthy territory, into the arena of justice and vengeance. It is the aftermath of the Civil war, when the roads are full of “mysterious dark men that might have been soldiers once but had lost at that.” In the background are nightriders who wear burlap hoods. Yet the family at the heart of the novel is a celebration of the diversity of the twenty-first century, two gay men (one an Irish immigrant who is a cross-dresser), their adopted Indian daughter and two freed slaves. It is this contemporary sensibility confronted by the anarchy and darkness of the nineteenth century that makes A Thousand Moons as much of a page-turner as anything Barry has written. There is a relaxed feel to the language, with a Dickensian delight in the descriptions and characters’ names. When we are introduced to a minor, if pivotal, character you can almost hear Barry chuckling as he types: “If you can be twenty years old and yet look deceased, Wynkle King fitted the bill.”

Every page has a sentence, often a paragraph, of description of character or landscape that provokes a smile of satisfaction or involuntary nod in the reader. Sebastian Barry, like Cormac McCarthy, writes sentences echoing Biblical rhythms, they sound as though they come directly from the nineteenth-century: “Men with hard beginnings pay cents on the debt that at length burgeon up to dollars. Though accounted a beauty in his youth it was a mortgaged beauty now.” The novel is worth reading just for Barry’s flamboyant language, as earthy as it is lyrical, and the depth of his portrayal of a happy family. It will make a wonderful TV series one day and, as such, it has some of the faults of TV drama, the implausibly neat ending would embarrass an episode of Midsomer Murders.

Any cop?: A feelgood version of the American West, its violence and (surprising) diversity, the celebration of a perfect family: “That I had souls that loved me and hearts that watched over me was a truth self-evident to hold.”


James Doyle

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