Thomas McNulty, aged barely seventeen and having fled the Great Famine in Ireland, signs up for the U.S. Army in the 1850s. With his brother in arms, John Cole, Thomas goes on to fight in the Indian Wars—against the Sioux and the Yurok—and, ultimately, the Civil War. Orphans of terrible hardships themselves, the men find these days to be vivid and alive, despite the horrors they see and are complicit in. Moving from the plains of Wyoming to Tennessee, Sebastian Barry’s latest work is a masterpiece of atmosphere and language. An intensely poignant story of two men and the makeshift family they create with a young Sioux girl, Winona, Days Without End is a fresh and haunting portrait of the most fateful years in American history and is a novel never to be forgotten.
Just after his 17th birthday, Thomas McNulty and his friend, John Cole, decide to enlist in the US Army as a way to escape their bleak home lives. This decision takes them through service during the Indian and Civil Wars. While they may have anticipated great adventures, they had no way of knowing the horrors of war that awaited them.
The first half of the novel focuses on the Indian War years, as the boys not only learn basic soldiering, but also how to survive all the different types of weather and terrain as they march or ride across the country. Mother Nature brings them battles of her own in the form of vicious heat over the flatlands, freezing winters in camps with beyond meager supplies, fever epidemics, and food shortages (even the horses are starving to death).
Racism of the day is another strong theme in this work. Though not written as one of the novel's racist characters himself, Thomas points out to the reader various examples he sees throughout the course of his life. For one, an Army acquaintance of Thomas and John's falls in love with an Ogalala Sioux woman, fathers a son with her. Thomas's response to the news: "I guess love laughs at history a little." Then there's John himself, who is part Native American... apparently that "part" is visible enough in his appearance for him to get a dose of hate speech directed his way.
We were two wood shavings of humanity in a rough world.. (Thomas re: him and John)... You had to love John Cole for what he chose never to say. He said plenty of the useful stuff.
There's also the matter of Thomas and his friends working at a theater between tours of duty, a job that occasionally has them doing minstrel shows in blackface. I'd also mention that there is a description near the end of the book where the men remember coming upon 30 black people who had recently been hanged together. I warn you, this description is mildly graphic.
In truth, there's a strong dose of graphic material throughout the whole novel. Chapter 2 is mostly about hunting, killing, and cutting up buffalo. Chapter 3 focuses on massacring Indians. The gritty, graphic nature of the writing only increases as you approach the closing chapters of the story.
Chapter 12 starts the Civil War experiences, sending Thomas and John to Boston, Massachusetts for training. There Thomas meets a fellow Irish immigrant. They swap stories of their "coming over" experience on the boats, giving the reader a grim look at the reality of what families risked to get here for the chance at a new life. It is through this meeting that Thomas ponders on the realization of just how often Irish men were treated like total scum... until the Army needed soldiers for their causes.
The story is told in Thomas's first person perspective, but as an older man now retired and living in Tennessee, looking back on his wild youth. Said youth starts in Ireland, but (after he loses his entire family) soon brings him to the US as a teenage immigrant, eventually deciding to settle in Missouri. If you struggle with reading stories written in dialects, I warn you that this one is written in a kind of "country boy" voice that only gets stronger as your reading progresses. There's also a healthy dose of cursing -- some used just as a matter of speech, some as actual intended profanity in the situation.
Thomas also describes what it was like being a gay man -- his lover being his friend John -- in this era, with a penchant for cross dressing. Every so often we also get a glimpse of his sassiness, such as his thoughts on his short stature: "I'm a little man right enough but maybe the best dagger is a short one sometimes." (Meanwhile, John is 6'3.)
The plot didn't keep my attention all that well. There is something to Barry's writing that I could appreciate. The verbiage itself is solid enough, Thomas gives the reader a good laugh here and there, there are lots of pretty lines -- such as "our breath is flowing out like lonesome flowers that die on the air" -- but something was still lacking. I just didn't find myself emotionally committing to these characters, as far as their life stories go. What I do give points for are the themes / topics Barry leaves you to ponder on, such as racism of the era, the topic of immigration, or my favorite, the dichotomy that extends to exist within the Irish spirit. The sweetness vs. the hellfire. There's a whole passage on this that really rang true with me and had me nodding in recognition!
How do you make conversation with a sperm donor? How do you say someone's novel is drivel? Would you give a screaming baby brandy? In what words would you tell your girlfriend to pluck a hair on her chin? Touchy Subjects is about things that make people wince: taboos, controversies, secrets and lies. Some of the events that characters crash into are grand, tragic ones: miscarriage, overdose, missing persons, a mother who deserts her children. Other topics, like religion and money, are not inherently taboo, but they can cause acute discomfort because people disagree so vehemently. Many of these stories are about the spectrum of constrained, convoluted feeling that runs from awkwardness through embarrassment to shame.
In this odd little short story collection, Emma Donoghue breaks up her tales into five categories of general life: Babies, Domesticity, Strangers, Desire and Death. A rundown of of the stories:
"Touchy Subjects" (title story) -- a man agrees to be the sperm donor to his wife's best friend. Story gets into general discussion of fertility struggles of women
"Expecting" -- a woman lies about being pregnant, the lie gets out of hand
"The Man Who Wrote On Beaches" -- a man turns 43 and finds religion, which causes upset in his relationship with his agnostic girlfriend (there is a baby discussion here, if you're wondering)
"OOPS" -- James helps friend Neasa through a pregnancy he assumes is unplanned and unwanted, sets himself up as surrogate "uncle" to the child, helping with child rearing over the years
"Through The Night" -- Pre-motherhood Una was known for being quite the stoic. Now after giving birth, she finds herself deep in the throws of sleep deprivation and postpartum depression, uneasy with the dark places her mind is drifting.
"Do They Know It's Christmas?" -- A childless couple has embraced their life as dog parents and all is well until the holidays come and they're asked to leave the dogs at home while they attend a family gathering.
"Lavender's Blue" -- A couple goes near-mad trying to agree on the perfect shade of slate blue to paint the exterior of their house
"The Cost of Things" -- An emotional rift develops between a lesbian couple over the medical expenses for their sick cat
"Pluck" -- A husband becomes fixated on a single dark hair on his wife's chin
"Good Deed" -- A wealthy Canadian man struggles to decide on a course of action over a homeless man he finds laying in the street, bleeding from the mouth
"The Sanctuary of Hands" -- In Toulouse, France, a woman decides to take a tour of underground caverns, but is unsettled by a group of special needs adults joining her tour group.
"WritOr" -- A once successful writer, now struggling with mounting debt, grudgingly agrees to accept a "Writer In Residence" position at a small college, giving writing advice to aspiring authors.
"Team Men" -- Teenager Jonathan plays on a football team, with his dad as the coach. His dad is pretty hard on him, when it comes to critiquing Jonathan's athletic ability. When new guy Davy joins the team, Davy quickly becomes the star player. Jonathan feels a little threatened by him at first, but before long they become good friends who progess into secret lovers. Though they think they've been successful keeping their relationship under wraps, Jonathan's father turns mysteriously, progressively angry towards the both of them.
"Speaking In Tongues" -- Ladies Lee and Sylvia fall for each other after meeting at a conference
"The Welcome" -- Luce sees one 5-line ad for womens' housing, finds herself triggered by the spelling errors and the political correctness seeping through the choice of wording
"The Dormition of the Virgin" -- George is vacationing in Italy. The last day of his stay he comes upon a dead body.
"Enchantment" -- Pitre and Bunch are two longtime friends living in Louisiana who get competitive with running swamp tours... until Pitre falls gravely ill
"Baggage" -- Niniane is in Hollywood .... partly on holiday, partly to find out information regarding her estranged brother
"Necessary Noise" -- Two sisters pick up their brother from a nightclub, immediately have to rush him to a hospital when he appears to be extremely ill and under the influence of serious drugs.
I closed the book with a strong feeling of MEH. In a number of these stories, there are definitely intriguing ideas that Donoghue experiments with.. they just didn't really go anywhere. Most of these stories didn't close on strong, impactful moments, instead just kinda .. dropped off... which is one of my big peeves with short story collections in general. I will say though, I enjoyed the second half of the book much more than the first. I was close to DNF-ing after the first few stories but something was telling me to hang in there.
I'm glad I did, largely for "WritOr", which ended up being my favorite story in the whole book. After a number of bland bits in the earlier portion of this collection, I was pleasantly surprised to find such humor in "WritOr". Granted, it might be the "you had to be there" brand of humor. Being a writer myself, who worked as a writing tutor in college, a lot of what Donoghue illustrates in this particular story brought back vivid memories of my own experiences in that environment. Perhaps for that story alone, maybe a couple others that made me smile or think for a moment, I'll likely end up keeping this one on my shelves, at least for the time being. But if you haven't tried any of Donoghue's work before, I would NOT recommend starting here.
Newfoundland, 1919. Two aviators—Jack Alcock and Arthur Brown—set course for Ireland as they attempt the first nonstop flight across the Atlantic Ocean, placing their trust in a modified bomber to heal the wounds of the Great War. Dublin, 1845 and ’46. On an international lecture tour in support of his subversive autobiography, Frederick Douglass finds the Irish people sympathetic to the abolitionist cause—despite the fact that, as famine ravages the countryside, the poor suffer from hardships that are astonishing even to an American slave. New York, 1998. Leaving behind a young wife and newborn child, Senator George Mitchell departs for Belfast, where it has fallen to him, the son of an Irish-American father and a Lebanese mother, to shepherd Northern Ireland’s notoriously bitter and volatile peace talks to an uncertain conclusion. These three iconic crossings are connected by a series of remarkable women whose personal stories are caught up in the swells of history. Beginning with Irish housemaid Lily Duggan, who crosses paths with Frederick Douglass, the novel follows her daughter and granddaughter, Emily and Lottie, and culminates in the present-day story of Hannah Carson, in whom all the hopes and failures of previous generations live on. From the loughs of Ireland to the flatlands of Missouri and the windswept coast of Newfoundland, their journeys mirror the progress and shape of history. They each learn that even the most unassuming moments of grace have a way of rippling through time, space, and memory.
This novel open in 2012 but before the final page ends up spanning two continents and three centuries. Though considered a complete novel, TransAtlantic ends up having more the feel of interconnected short stories, the first being of two former WW1 pilots, Jack Alcock and Arthur Brown, in Newfoundland in 1919, who are attempting the first nonstop transatlantic flight after modifying an old bomber plane.
Days of welding, soldering, sanding, stitching. The bomb bays were replaced by extra petrol tanks. That's what pleased Brown the most. They were using the bomber in a brand-new way: taking the war out of the plane, stripping the whole thing of its penchant for carnage.
Their destination: Ireland. The project is riddled with setbacks. Just the attempt to fly from London -- when they're SO close to the finish line! -- to Clifden, Ireland causes the plane to basically crumble apart at times, nearly killing them more than once!
From there, the story stays in Ireland but jumps back to the year 1845. Former slave / abolitionist Frederick Douglass is visiting Dublin while on a European tour to promote his memoirs (and thereby his abolitionist message). It is during this time that author Colum McCann paints a picture of what the era of the potato famine might have looked like to someone who had likewise known extreme hardships such as Douglass.
Douglass writes to wife Anna about his impressions of Ireland and its people, initially noting that he finds himself quite at ease, as the people are incredibly friendly and respectful, not an n-word hurled at him once. That, the reader will find, is short-lived. Douglass starts doing joint speaking engagements with "The Great Liberator" Daniel O'Connell. People start calling Douglass "the black O'Connell". As the tour continues, Douglass starts to notice his own publisher (international, that is), Webb, treats him more and more like a specimen or a roadshow attraction. Webb becomes noticeably more stingy with covering Douglass' travel expenses. That slur usage Douglass thought was absent in Ireland ends up rearing its head in Cork as Douglass is simply walking down a street one day. It is during this time that author McCann also works in the storyline of Douglass making plans on how to officially negotiate his freedom while in England.
Douglass (at least McCann's portrayal of him) does describe a moment of PTSD while being fitted for a suit while overseas, a moment in the experience throwing him back to his days as a slave.
The reader is also given a more modern story, comparatively, involving Irish-American senator George Mitchell, based in NYC, who heads to Belfast in 1998 to try to help promote peace talks in Northern Ireland. (Colum McCann himself, per his author blurb, was born in Dublin but now lives in NYC). When it came to this portion of the book, the bits about the senator being so in love with his wife were very sweet but overall I found myself a bit bored by his storyline.
Have I mentioned how much this book jumps back and forth between all these different eras? Yeah, if you like your fiction strictly chronological, TransAtlantic might prove to be a challenge for you. Comfortable in that 1990s setting? Too bad! McCann will slingshot you over to Civil War era and back again. A heads up regarding that, if you are a sensitive reader: much of this book is pretty tame (low violence factor), but the Civil War portions do contain some crude, graphic descriptions that may possibly turn your stomach.
Part of what kept me reading was trying to figure out how all these characters were connected ... I assumed there must be at least some link, even a thin one... it wasn't always immediately evident what those connections were. But in the case of Douglass's story, there was a character there that comes back around years later and links stuff up for the reader in Part 2. This character's story, with her connection to Douglass... in a way it saddened me, but there was something there that leaves a feeling of optimism for the future.
In general, the plots going on within the various storylines were mildly interesting, but nothing really deeply hooked me as a reader. Also, the jumping around seemed to lack finesse, instead giving me a bit of a headache trying to keep up and make sense of all the details being tossed about.
* In his acknowledgements section, Colum McCann gives a shout-out to Irish actor Gabriel Byrne as part of the "TransAtlantic Crew"... makes me wonder if a movie adaptation was ever in the works? I can't find evidence of this anywhere online... later on he also gives nods to fellow writers Michael Ondaatje (of The English Patient fame) and Wendell Berry.
Lily's thirteenth birthday starts off with a bang. Literally. A present explodes on her porch . . . and soon after, a trio of leprechauns (yes, leprechauns) appears in her bedroom. They whisk her away to a land of clover, piskies, a new friend, a cute boy, and lots of glimmering, glittering gold. A world of Green. It turns out that Lily—as her grandmother was before her—is in line to be keeper for the Clan of Green, in charge of all their gold. That is, if she passes three tests. And she has to pass them. Because if she doesn't? She may never get to go home again. She'll be stuck with the Greens. Forever.
On the day of Lily Green's 13th birthday, she answers her doorbell to find a package, addressed to her, sitting on her front porch. A package that promptly explodes, sending her flying back, the blast also breaking a front window. When she comes to again, the neighbors have gathered around to access the situation and wait for paramedics to arrive. Excusing herself, Lily rushes to her room, where she finds three leprechauns waiting for her. They quickly inform her that she is to come with them back to their kingdom, as she is next in line to serve as this leprechaun clan's Keeper, the person assigned to manage the clan's gold stores.
It's a lot of information to take in at once, so naturally Lily's first reaction is to resist going anywhere with these wee strangers but they have no intention of accepting any refusal. As they point out, they've been waiting for a number of years for her to turn thirteen, the minimum age requirement for a Keeper. Turns out Lily's own grandmother, recently departed, passed away before she had a chance to give Lily the rundown on the secret family business.
Once in the leprechaun kingdom, Lily gets a little more information to take in. For one, from her father's side she descends from a long line of leplings, humans who have a small strain of leprechaun blood in them. Since the creation of leplings, it has become tradition that one in their line should always be Keeper (a kind of banker for the clan) of the gold deposits. In order to accept her role though, Lily must first pass three tests to fully prove to the clan that she is the true heir to the position. You might have heard leprechauns are pretty particular about who gets around their gold. ☺ If she doesn't pass these tests, her mind will be wiped of all things leprechaun related, including ALL memories of her grandmother. Lily accepts the challenge, but as the tests get increasingly dangerous -- the third and final test even putting her in a bit of a Catch-22 -- she starts to suspect someone might not want her to succeed after all.
The first few chapters read a little depressing: Lily's parents are split up, her grandmother is dead, Lily is painted as a bit of an awkward loner, so when her birthday comes around, author Laura Roberts paints a pretty sad picture. Lily's mom refuses to take the day off from work and there seems to be only one friend in Lily's life who might be by later to do some celebrating. Also, a NOTE for sensitive readers prone to triggering material: there IS a split-second reference to self-harm in this story... not someone actually carrying out, only one character mentioning suspicion of another character, but the topic is hinted at. The story takes a few chapters to really get into (maybe because of the heavier bits in these early pages) but the pace picks up once Lily gets into her Keeper challenges.
From there, everything is good fun! There's a healthy dose of humor being thrown about once Lily meets her new leprechaun relatives. Lily getting injured by the package bomb blast, one leprechaun notes, "I didn't know you'd be so delicate." When Lily gets to the kingdom and they see her hair is damaged, a female leprechaun is sent in with some magic shears that can make hair longer rather than shorter... but when Lily voices that she's not entirely happy with the patch up results, the lady leprechaun tosses back, "It's a bit o' magic, not a miracle." Even in a leprechaun kingdom, hair stylists will set you straight on the limitations of their trade! But my favorite was Lily being teamed with the leprechaun Cain for the pisky hunt. Too bad Cain ends up being someone to give Lily a hard life lesson in trust. :-(
So if you are all about going on a light adventure filled with magic, chases, intrigue, a dash of backstabbing, and crowd-surfing leprechauns to boot, this one might be a fun one to while away a chill afternoon this spring! It even closes on a cute scene so you can leave with a smile!
As far as I know, this is a stand-alone story, but I could see potential for continuation of the storyline...I would be all for revisiting these characters as they grow up (or older, in the case of the leprechauns lol).