A Thousand Moons by Sebastian Barry

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Reviewed by Rod McLary

A sequel to the critically-acclaimed Days Without End, this novel continues the story of Winona – a Lakota survivor of the Indian wars in Tennessee in the 1860s and 1870s.  Winona was adopted by two soldiers – Thomas McNulty and John Cole – as their mode of reparation for the killings committed by them during the wars.  Thomas and John – friends and lovers – created a family life for the then seven-year-old Winona.

All Winona has now are the memories of her mother – a strong and fierce warrior – who along with many others was brutally killed by the American soldiers.  The cruelty of the soldiers and their determination to rid their world of the Indians are brilliantly realised but without gratuitous violent language.

While Thomas and John were at the heart of Days Without End, they are given lesser roles in this book.  The focus of the book is Winona – now seventeen and an intelligent and quick-witted young woman ready to create her own place in the world.  Her given name was Ojinjintka which means Rose but it was too difficult for the soldiers to pronounce.

To leave behind the more distressing elements of their shared past, Thomas, John and Winona begin a new life for themselves in a country still suffering from the aftermath of the Civil War and the Indian wars.  They work on a farm near Paris in Tennessee owned by Lige Magan and alongside two emancipated slaves – brother and sister Rosalee and Tennyson.  However, violence is only a heartbeat away – particularly for Black and Native Americans.  As one character says of Winona: ‘these creatures, you see, they ain’t even human, not truly, not the same as you and me’ [111].

The story is narrated by Winona in her own form of English but her words are full of poetry with an incisive view of the folly of humans – as in the following:

Sometimes we are so foolish in our thoughts that even fools would baulk at what we are thinking [125]

So that when nothing came, no riders rode out against us, we began foolishly to feel almost a disappointment, when of course we should have been feeling a jubilant relief [127].

With only a few words, the author draws the self-created world in which Winona and her adoptive parents Thomas and John gradually heal from the horrors of their experiences of war and for Winona the horrors of the annihilation of her people. 

As Winona and the others eke out their living on the farm, there is a constant and threatening undercurrent of physical danger.  They are all conscious of their lack of respect from the inhabitants of the local town; two freed slaves, a young Native American woman, and two ex-soldiers – each of them an outsider.  The author – through the voice of Winona – skilfully and subtlety creates a sense of encroaching disaster as the paper-thin veneer of civilisation is stretched until, in an act of violence against Winona, it rips apart.  As Winona says: ‘World wanted bad things to happen to Indian girls’ [41].

Sebastian Barry has created a world in which there is no moral centre – there is no certainty on which to grasp.  All is subject to the irrational thinking of men who have been badly damaged by the wars and as a consequence care little for themselves or others.  But in the midst of this, there is some hope.  Thomas and John have made their own small family which is held together by love – unconventional and in those days immoral – but it is strong enough to provide Winona with security and confidence.

But life itself has little meaning.  As one of the lesser characters says ‘What is the riddle of life?  To-ing and fro-ing, this-ing and that-ing, and not knowing what in tarnation we doing it all for’ [166-7].  The answer to this question – and essentially what is at the heart of the book – can be answered by Winona: ‘That I had souls that loved me and hearts that watched over me was a truth self-evident to hold’ [251].

The novel falters a little in the final chapter when it descends almost into musical comedy but it recovers and the novel’s conclusion promises no more than a world which is ‘strange and lost’ [251].

While not as strong a novel as Days Without End, it nevertheless entrances the reader from the beginning.  The author’s prose and his ability to create a world which no reader would have experienced provides a strength to the story which easily surmounts any minor quibbles with the plot.  It is a book which requires close reading to fully enjoy the language and the many insights into the nature of the world in which we live.

Sebastian Barry is an Irish writer and his novels have twice won the Costa Book of the Year award, the Independent Booksellers Award and the Walter Scott Prize.  He has twice been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize; and has also won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize.

A Thousand Moons

[2020]

by Sebastian Barry

Allen & Unwin

ISBN 978 0 571 33338 7

$32.99; 251pp

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