Irish storyteller Sebastian Barry's newest novel proved a universal hit with the celebrity panel
“But weren’t the Americans awful to the Indians,” said Mary O’Rourke this Thanksgiving Thursday, hitting the nail on the scalped head. The former Fianna Fáil cabinet minister was back once again to serve as a panellist on the Eason Book Club on The Pat Kenny Show, reunited with the venerable host, as well as comedienne Katherine Lynch and musician Bryan Kennedy. November’s meeting, falling rather aptly on the American holiday, involved the newest book by Irish storyteller Sebastian Barry, Days without End, the story of a young Irishman who escapes the Famine and finds himself when caught up in the American Civil War.
“If you want to know about the Indian reservations, read it. If you want to know about the Civil War, read it. If you want to know about history or geography, read this book,” Mary added, telling the panel how much she loved the novel. Everyone else seemed to agree.
“There was the most unbelievable Yin and Yang to it,” raved Katherine, heaping praise on Barry’s lyricism and plotting. The story revolves around Thomas McNulty and John Cole, two brothers in arms who find themselves falling in love with each other.
“All of Trooper McNulty’s family die in the Famine, he has nothing left. So he sneaks onto a famine shop and makes it to the US through Quebec, like so many Irish people. And when they got off the ships, they got off angry, they were not quite nice. They were violent. And they ended up joining the Indian Wars and doing exactly what had been done to them back home.”
Moments of brutal violence are intercut with moments of incredible tenderness, with the novel exploring very modern themes like sexuality and gender fluidity.
“It was unbelievable to read about the scalping and then read about a man more comfortable to stay in his dress,” said Katherine.
Bryan said he thought that the writing powerfully evoked the sense of racism and conflict between US settlers and the native peoples. “The soldiers could just do it at the drop of a hat because there’s a subhuman temperature to it all where they go, ‘Oh, I don’t think you’re a human, I could just cut your head off!”
As ever, the Eason Book Club panel welcomed a call – and another perspective – from a listener, this time from maths and English teacher Owen McNestry. His book club, founded almost a decade ago by a group of college friends, many of whom have dipped in and out in the intervening years due to emigration and returning home. Meeting every five weeks, the club moves around the neighbourhoods of Dublin, although none of the hosts are under pressure to provide a spotless house.
Of Days without End, the biggest positive the club took away was Sebastian Barry provided them with one of the longest book discussions they’ve had in months.
“We all liked their relationship, as it was really understated, but poignant, very believable. And just about played on the right side of not being too anachronistic with the gender and sexuality,” Owen said.
But the club was more critical about Barry’s use of language. “A little too flowery for someone who hadn’t had much schooling, and we found how it was punctuated a little distracting. But we all agreed it would make for a great movie and could see a big budget film starring Michael Fassbender coming from it.”
With next month being December, the Eason Book Club will look back on a year’s worth of reading and talk about how they love a good book come Christmas time. Tune in to the final Eason Book Club of 2016 on The Pat Kenny Show on Thursday, December 22nd.
In the meantime, catch up on November’s book of the month by listening back to the podcast below: