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A Thousand Moons by Sebastian Barry, review: why do these 19th-century characters think like 21st-century liberals?

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James Fuller Queen, Union soldiers at Point Lookout, Tennessee, 1873
James Fuller Queen, Union soldiers at Point Lookout, Tennessee, 1873 Credit: Photo12/Universal Images Group via Getty 

Sebastian Barry’s fiction specialises in what his 1998 breakthrough novel, The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty, called “scraps of humanity blown off the road of life by history’s hungry breezes”. His main characters – often members of Eneas’s extended family – are people whose lives are unregarded, unsung and, above all, unlucky. 

Eneas himself was branded a traitor for leaving Ireland to fight with the British in the Great War, and spent much of the novel in lonely and frightened exile. His sister-in-law Roseanne in The Secret Scripture, the 2008 Costa Book of the Year, was locked up forever in a Sligo lunatic asylum for having an illegitimate baby (that she never saw again). His brother Jack in The Temporary Gentleman (2014) ended his days a whiskey-sodden failure at pretty much everything.

Then in 2016 came a novel that Barry announced as such a significant change of direction that “it was literally like being let out of prison”. In some ways, you could see what he meant. Days Without End, which made Barry the only novelist ever to win the Costa Book of the Year twice, is set in 19th-century America and mentions the violent history of Ireland only in passing, concentrating instead on the violent history of the United States. On the other hand, its narrator is one Thomas McNulty, who has much in common with the later members of his clan. He certainly qualifies as a scrap of humanity blown off the road of life by history’s hungry breezes: after the Irish famine kills his family, he heads across the Atlantic as a teenager and ends up in the US Army, fighting against both the Indians and the Confederacy. He also shares the McNulty taste for lyricism and distinct lack of good fortune – early in his army career, he endures enervating cold, a flash flood, a yellow fever epidemic and a starvation march, all within five pages.

On the plus side, mind you, he forms a deeply loving sexual relationship with John Cole, a fellow soldier, and the two adopt an Indian girl called Winona, with whom they form a strikingly close-knit family – or, as Thomas puts it, a “little kingdom we have pitched against the darkness”. When the novel closes, they’re living in Tennessee with another army buddy of Thomas’s and a black brother and sister of impeccable nobility.

Now, in A Thousand Moons, the 18-year-old Winona takes up the story, giving Barry his first narrator not from an Irish background. Again, though, this isn’t such a revolution in his work as you might imagine – and not just because Winona, too, favours the sort of lyricism that takes its similes from the close-at-hand (“the years went by… like ponies running across the endless grasses”) and throws in plenty of aphoristic folk wisdom (“The story of a life goes only to the same shore”). It’s also because Barry clearly wants us to see the parallels between the Irish and Native Americans. In Days Without End, Thomas writes that “we were thought worthless. Nothing people.” In A Thousand Moons, Winona says that, according to the white folks, “we were nothing”. And just as Thomas could never bring himself to recall exactly what happened during the famine, so Winona, for the same self-protective reasons, screens out the details of her people’s massacre by the US Army.

Author Sebastian Barry  Credit: Clara Molden

Then again, she does have more immediate threats to worry about. After the Civil War, Tennessee’s governor makes some attempts to clamp down on the state’s white supremacists. But they’re soon on the rise again, in the alarming shape of the newly formed Ku Klux Klan. Near the beginning, Winona is raped and badly beaten up. Thanks to her first experience of whiskey, she can’t remember who did it, but she has her suspicions – the trouble being that nothing done to an Indian is officially a crime. 

Not long afterwards, Tennyson, her male, black housemate, is also attacked and, deciding the time has come to fight back, Winona tools herself up and takes part in a raid on the local Klan camp. There she meets Peg, another kick-ass Indian woman, and falls instantly in love – unsurprisingly given that “gazing on Peg made my legs wash with flame… and I felt an infinite gratitude to the Great Spirit”. Naturally, their relationship is fine with Winona’s gay dads and so Peg joins their multicultural household – although, of course, the outside world and those pesky hungry breezes don’t leave them in peace for long…

Through all of this, many of the best qualities of Days Without End are back on display: the grand sweep of history combined with a pin-sharp sense of specific time and place; the ability to mix the wider ruminations with a propulsive plot; the righteous indignation; the often vivid phrasemaking. But so too are many of its flaws. For one thing, Winona’s folk wisdom can sometimes tend to the baffling: “It seemed to me life was a mire when you had so much said and so much not said and in between the two all the things that could only have been said by angels.” For another, there’s the inescapable feeling that the endless lyricism belongs not so much to her as to Sebastian Barry. When she’s speaking dialogue, Winona says things like: “I the greatest fool girl ever lived”. When she’s narrating, a typical sentence is: “A reluctant sun was trying to measure the height of the sky with long thin veins.”

More damagingly, it’s impossible to shake off the feeling that what we’re getting is 19th-century history under firm 21st-century curatorship, with all our contemporary pieties carefully respected. This is partly reflected in the characterisation, with every one of the minority representatives unfailingly honourable. Unlike white men, for instance, who “in the main just see slaves and Indians”, Tennyson “knew we were proper souls”. But it’s there even more in the fact that Winona has the attitudes of a present-day liberal. 

In Days Without End, Thomas was not only firmly anti-racist and openly gay, but he also identified as trans: “I feel a woman more than I ever felt a man… Just a thing that’s in you and you can’t gainsay.” Here, if anything, Winona takes the modernising process further still, with her refusal to see herself as a victim, her determination to claim agency and her fury that sexual assault is seen as something that “girls had to bear in the general affairs of the world”. And all the time, she continues to champion gay rights, women’s rights and racial equality. When black people (temporarily) get the vote, she duly notes that this applies only to men.

Anybody who believes – as the Victorians did, and as many people today appear to – that the main purpose of a novel is to be morally virtuous will presumably love A Thousand Moons. (You could certainly make a case that the huge commercial and critical success of Days Without End was linked to its assiduous flattering of modern sensibilities.) Yet, surely even they will have to suppress a niggling awareness that a 19th-century teenage Native American who wouldn’t be out of place writing opinion pieces for The Guardian is – at the very least – a little historically unconvincing.

A Thousand Moon will be published by Faber on March 19 at £18.99. To pre-order your copy for £16.99, call 0844 871 1514 or visit the Telegraph Bookshop