Book review: A Thousand Moons, by Sebastian Barry

A Thousand Moons is a sequel with a difference to Days Without End, which won the Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction. That novel was narrated by Thomas McNulty, a poor Irish immigrant who serves alongside his lover John Cole as a cavalry soldier in the Indian Wars and later in the Civil War on the Union side. The narrator of the new novel is Winona, the Native American girl Thomas and John rescued from the slaughter of her tribe, educated and reared as their daughter. Winona now lives with them on a poor farm in Tennessee, a state divided in the war, one in which embittered Confederates seek revenge for defeat and humiliation. Winona works as a book-keeper for an elderly and benevolent lawyer; she is courted by a Polish-American boy Jas Jonski, but is unresponsive.
Sebastian Barry PIC: Joel Saget/AFP via Getty ImagesSebastian Barry PIC: Joel Saget/AFP via Getty Images
Sebastian Barry PIC: Joel Saget/AFP via Getty Images

Barry has found a wonderful speaking voice for Winona: lyrical, youthfully innocent, yet darkened by her memories and awareness of the genocidal destruction of her own people and their way of life. Here one must get out of the way the accusation of cultural misappropriation that some will surely bring against Barry: how dare he, an Irishman in his sixties, adopt the persona of an 18-year-old Native American girl, and provide her with a voice? Well, it’s a stupid charge, but then we live in exceptionally stupid times. Fiction is a work of the imagination and Barry is as entitled to invent Winona and find a voice for her as Hilary Mantel is to enter the mind of Thomas Cromwell. In both cases there is only one intelligent question: is it well done? In both cases it is supremely well done, and that’s enough. A Thousand Moons is, like so much of the greatest fiction, a crime novel. There is private crime – a rape, a beating, a murder – and there is public or political crime, the aftermath of the terrible Civil War in the divided state of Tennessee, where the defeated Confederates seek first revenge, which takes the form of lynchings, murders and arson, and then the re-establishment of their political power, which sees a terrorist become a judge, and justice first denied, then horribly perverted.

How do you survive in such a diseased climate? Winona has dark memories from her ruined childhood, memories of her mother and a way of life in harmony with nature. These memories, an accuser might say, are sentimentalised, but they are memories which Winona was justified in retaining, and it is the richness of her memories which make for the alertness of her response to the physical world, to the shimmering beauty of the landscape and to its birds and wild animals.
Then Winona is strengthened by the love that surrounds her: the love of McNulty and Cole for each other and for her, the loving support of their employer, the framer Lige, the love of the two emancipated slaves Rosalee and her brother Tennyson, and finally the love of Peg, a girl whom she first fights and then befriends.

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So in the end she may conclude that while “the world was strange and lost” and that there was no place that was not “perilous,” the reality of love is the “truth self-evident to behold.” In this realization, the crime novel becomes an affirmative one.

Barry writes with the freshness and beauty of an early summer morning when the dew sparkles and the air shimmers with the promise of a glorious day. He is also a masterly craftsman, modulating the pace of his narrative, alternating vivid scenes of action with tranquil moments in which time seems to stand still. It is common for novelists to do their best work when they are in early middle-life, between say 35 and 50, before energy begins to fail and many years at the desk have dulled their response to experience, and so they come often to repeat themselves or at best offer new variations on familiar themes. Not Barry; his writing is better than ever. Days Without End and A Thousand Moons are equally marvellous; together, one of the finest achievements in contemporary fiction.

A Thousand Moons, by Sebastian Barry, Faber, 251pp, £18.99