Thanks to Faber and Faber and to NetGalley for offering me an ARC copy of this book, which I freely chose to review.
I read Barry’s Days Without End, loved it (you can read my review here) and couldn’t resist when I saw his next novel was available. This story follows on from the previous one, and it shares quite a few characteristics with that one. Although I’ve read some reviews by people who hadn’t read the previous novel and said that they felt this one could be read on its own, I wouldn’t dare to comment on that. Personally, because the story follows closely on from Days Without End, and it refers to many of the characters we had got to know there, I’d recommend readers thinking about taking up this series to start by reading the previous novel.
This story, like Barry’s previous book, is a historical novel, in this case set in Tennessee shortly after the American Civil War. In the previous novel we followed two characters, Thomas McNulty (the first person narrator) and John Cole, through their adventures as actors, Indian hunters and soldiers, and learned that they had adopted a young Lakota girl, Ojinjintka, renamed Winona; in this second book we hear the story from Winona’s point of view. The couple of men have settled down now, and the fact that this is not only a woman’s story, but the story of a Native-American woman, means that her ambit of action is much more restricted and despite her efforts to take control of her own life, she’s often at the mercy of laws and circumstances that consider her less than a human being. Although she is loved by her adoptive parents and the rest of the extended family she lives with, that is not a general state of affairs, and if life had treated her badly as a child, she also suffers a major traumatic event here, as a young woman. No matter that she is educated (she keeps the books for a lawyer in town), strong-willed, and determined. She is either invisible (just an Indian girl) or a creature to be abused, vilified, and made to take the blame for other’s crimes. That does not mean what happens to her does not reflect the events in the larger society (we do hear about racism, about lynching, about corruption of the law, about Southern resistance…), but we get to see them from an “other” point of view, and it creates a sense of estrangement, which I suspect is intended by the author. While Thomas and John were outsiders themselves and always lived in the fringes of society, Winona’s position is more precarious still.
I have mentioned some of the themes of the novel, and others, like family relationships, race, gender, identity (Winona remembers a lot about her life as a Lakota, and the memories of her mother in particular bring her much comfort and strength), and the lot of women also play an important part in the novel. There is also something of a mystery running through it, as there are a couple of crimes committed early on (one a severe beating of an ex-slave living with Winona’s family in the farm, and the other one her assault) and Winona spends much of the novel trying to clarify what happened and to get justice, one way or another, as the authorities are not going to intervene because neither of them are important enough. Although she turns into something of an amateur detective, this is no cozy mystery or a light adventure novel, and there are plenty of harrowing moments in it, so I wouldn’t recommend it to people who are looking for cheerful entertainment.
The characters are as fascinating as those from the previous novel, although we get to see them from a totally different point of view. It Thomas was the guiding consciousness of Days Without End, Winona’s voice (in the first person) narrates this fragment of the story. We get to see things from her perspective, and that also offers us an opportunity to reevaluate our opinion of the characters we already knew. We also meet some new characters, but because of Winona’s status (or lack of it), we are put in a difficult position, always feeling suspicious and expecting the worst from those we meet, because she has no rights, both because she is a woman and because she is an Indian woman. Her voice takes some time to get used to. She has been educated, but a bit like happened with Thomas in the previous novel, her speech and thoughts are a mixture of vernacular expressions and lyrical images. She is sometimes confused and can’t make sense of what is happening around her, and at others can show a great deal of insight. When she reports the dialogue and words of others —although she is quite an astute observer of others’ behaviour —, all the people she mentions talk pretty much the same, no matter how educated they are, and farm-hands and judges cannot be told apart from the way they speak. Although I felt for Winona at an intellectual level and was horrified by the things she had to go through, perhaps because of the estrangement I mentioned and of the style of the narrative, I didn’t find it as easy to connect at an emotional level. I liked her and I loved her insights and some of her comments, but I didn’t feel as close to her as I did to Thomas in the first book.
The writing is beautiful and poetic at times, while at others it can be difficult to understand due to the mental state of the character and to her peculiar style. It reminded me of the stream-of-consciousness narration typical of modernist writers in the early years of the XX century. Winona’s thoughts jump from one subject to the next, and although the story is told in chronological order, memories of her time with the Lakotas and flashbacks from her trauma keep interfering in the narrative. This is not a particularly fast novel or a page turner in the traditional sense, as it meanders along, with exciting and horrifying scenes intermixed with scenes of domesticity and everyday life. I confess to having to go back and forth at times to make sure I hadn’t missed anything, but it was worth it.
I highlighted many parts of the novel, but I’ll share a few samples (note that this is an ARC copy, so there might be some changes in the published version):
I wonder what does it mean when another people judge you to be worth so little you were only to be killed? How our pride in everything was crushed so small it disappeared until it was just specks of things floating away on the wind.
You can’t be a geyser of tears all your life.
‘She got to have some recompense in law,’ said Lige Magan. ‘An Indian ain’t a citizen and the law don’t apply in the same way,’ said the lawyer Briscoe.
Only a woman knows how to live I believe because a man is too hasty, too half-cocked, mostly. That half-cocked gun hurts at random. But in my men I found fierce womanliness living. What a forturne. What a great heap of proper riches.
I’ve seen some reviews who felt the ending was disappointing or unbelievable. I’d have to agree that there is something of the Deus ex machina about the ending, but overall I liked where the story ended and would like to know what happens next to Winona, to Peg (one of my favourite new characters), and to the rest of the characters.
Would I recommend the novel? It is a fascinating book, and one lovers of Barry will enjoy. I advise anybody interested in this historical period and eager to read this author’s work to start with the previous novel, as I found the style of this one more challenging and more difficult to follow, and having an understanding of the background of the characters helps put it into perspective. As I usually do, I’d recommend readers to check a sample of the novel before deciding to purchase it, but give it a good chance, as it does take some time to get used to the style, and the story is well-worth reading and persevering with. I will definitely be looking forward to the next novel.