This novel won its author an unprecedented second Costa Book of the Year award. I certainly understand why.
The narrator, Thomas McNulty, recalls the days of his youth when “Time was not something then we thought of as an item that possessed an ending, but something that would go on forever . . . the days without end of my life.” After losing his family in Ireland because of the potato famine, he makes his way to America where he meets John Cole. The two of them, “wood-shavings in a rough world,” make their way together in that world by being saloon entertainers before joining the U.S. cavalry to fight Indians and then joining the Union Army to fight Confederate rebels.
The book examines a number of issues, including friendship, love, and family. Thomas has lost his family in Ireland and becomes one of what he calls, “Nothing people”: “We were a plague. We were only rats of people.” When he meets John, Thomas changes: “First time I felt a human person again.” Thomas declares, “John Cole was my first friend in America and so in the army too and the last friend for that matter” and soon “John Cole was my love, all my love.” Together they persevere through life’s travails and as a couple adopt a young Sioux girl whom they name Winona. The three of them form a “Holy Family” which Thomas will do anything to protect. It is this love and this family that give Thomas hope and sustain him.
A major theme of the book is the paradox of the world. Almost everyone and everything possesses contrasting dualities. There is always a “sense of two worlds rubbing up.” At the beginning, Thomas describes the Irish: “He may be an angel in the clothes of a devil or a devil in the clothes of an angel but either way you’re talking to two when you talk to one Irishman. He can’t help you enough and he can’t double-cross you deep enough ever either. An Irish trooper is the bravest man in the field and the most cowardly. I don’t know what it is. I seen killer Irishmen and gentle souls but they’re both the same . . . I was never no different neither.” And it is not just the Irish. The Indians fight savagely but leave food for starving soldiers. A major in the cavalry strives for compromise with the Indians yet also leads a vicious assault on an Indian village. That major has twin daughters: “Hephzibah was the black-haired girl and the fair one was Angel.” Winona is a Sioux but after living with whites, Thomas asks, “What is she now? Plucked all two ways . . . ” As teenagers, John and Thomas perform in drag for miners who are described as liking “rough food, rough whisky, rough nights” but they are also “gentlemen of the frontier” who when dancing with the boys “were that pleasing d’Artagnan in the old romances.” Army life is full of brutality yet Thomas says “army was a good life”; it was bloody but full of camaraderie.
Even nature is full of contradictions: “The old Mississippi is a temperate girl most times and her skin is soft and even. Something so old is perpetual young.” And even the beauty of nature has threat in it: “Vines climb into the halted trees and frost wraps round their limbs till you think the woods be full of icy snakes.” He describes seeing a country “whose beauty penetrates our bones. I say beauty and I mean beauty,” but then follows up with, “Oftentimes in American you could go stark mad from the ugliness of things.”
Of course Thomas is the best example of duality. He is a man who dresses as a woman: “I am easy as a woman, taut as a man. All my limbs is broke as a man, and fixed good as a woman. I lie down with the soul of woman and wake with the same. I don’t foresee no time where this ain’t true no more. Maybe I was born a man and growing into a woman.” Thomas explores gender fluidity; he is fascinated when in an Indian encampment he “spied out the wondrous kind called by the Indians winkte or by white men berdache, braves dressed in the finery of squaws. . . . The berdache puts on men’s garb when he goes to war, this I know. Then war over it’s back to the bright dress.”
Considering all that the men experience, it is not surprising that Thomas thinks, “No such item as a virtuous people.” He argues, “They say we are creatures raised by God above the animals but any man that has lived knows that’s damned lies.” When he sees freed blacks working and not looking like slaves, he is happy, concluding “this looks like to be better,” but then he adds, “We ain’t lingering to find out the weevils and the bad worms in these new visions.” Nonetheless, “Every life has its days of happiness despite the ugly Fates.” Though it may seem “Life wants you to go down and suffer” and “The world don’t care much, it just don’t mind much,” sometimes it is possible to “rob from injustice a shard of love.” And “All that stint of daily life we sometimes spit on like it was something waste. But it all there is and in it is enough. I do believe so.”
The language is very poetic and that sometimes strains the reader’s credulity. Would a man such as Thomas be capable of such wonderful turns of phrase? After one particularly brutal attack on Indians, Thomas muses about the settlers who are invading Indian lands: “This was the section of humanity favoured in that place, the Indians had no place no more there. Their tickets of passage were rescinded and the bailiffs of God had took back the paper for their souls. I did feel a seeping tincture of sadness for them. I did feel some strange toiling seeping sadness for them.” The combination of poetry and ungrammatical expressions is sometimes jarring, but that duality is undoubtedly intentional.
I can see the book being made into a sweeping, epic movie. It has ferocious battles, plot twists, hairbreadth escapes, and tests of endurance against heat, cold, and starvation. There are several instances where suspense is ratcheted up to an extreme. And there’s a story about friendship, loyalty, and love.
Readers should be forewarned that some suspension of disbelief is required. For example, there’s a marriage that is totally anachronistic, and the fortuitous arrival of a former comrade-in-arms in the midst of a gunfight is just too coincidental. They should also be warned that the violence is graphic; battles and suffering are described with realistic brutality.
I loved The Secret Scripture, the other novel that won Sebastian Barry the Costa Book of the Year award. This one is as deserving.