“I am Winona. In early times I was Ojinjintka, which means rose.”
SO we are back with those McNulty’s again are we, Sebastian? Another tome in the family history? More about naughty uncle Thomas in Tennessee?
Barry’s prose can read like he is polishing the family silver. Try this:
“The wide river seemed fattened with temperature. Brightly it pushed along, singing that pebble song of rivers.”
There are some memorable individual passages, a couple with fire and one with a storm that stand out like poems in themselves erupting out of the narrative. The scene in the blacksmiths is a furnace of emotion. These almost push you up against a wall and ask: Are you following this? Are you paying proper attention?
I am surprised reading the credits that Barry has written more plays – 14 including Blueberry Hill which was to have premiered in London this month – where this is only his seventh novel (he is also, by the way, the current Laureate for Irish Fiction). But the opening pages are a monologue that might have captivated a theatre audience, held them in thrall, scared them, taken their breath away, sprinkled water on their curiosity, set up a bravura stage performance, rehearsing the forging of deep mental metal prejudice. We are fearful for Winona. We know what happened in the book before this Days Without End. Henry County, Tennessee is no place for an orphan injun.
There is a hierarchy of post civil war, post Indian war oppressions that swing uncertainly back and forth between white immigrant, black draftee, half cast, ex slave, former Indian, girl…militia patrol the straggle of ex soldiers along the road outside the town of Paris. Exceptionally Winona is the only one among this bunch of reprobates that has learned her numbers and gets to work for the lawyer Briscoe who is almost as totemic as she is. On one level Winona is the American story, things happen to her.
The opening has a familiar western style plot lurking …it is a crime and revenge piece, only the usual actors have been moved around a little, like chess, if you will, with different, altered pieces. Our values have been smelted in the ferocious furnace of wars. He mother taught her that time is not a straight line, but a loop. Suddenly Winona will affirm:
“How was I so lucky to have those good-as-women men? Only a woman knows how to live…but in my men I found fierce womanliness living. What fortune…”
Not such good fortune, maybe…Barry fills out his characters in the old shack with such elegant detail that they are believable even when they are a bit unbelievable…You can hear them spit. Aurelius “was as trim as a boat”
Where Days Without End was a travelogue, this is a singular Indian fable, one you might like to believe you would find on the bookshelf of an old log cabin, next to the jug of moonshine.
One of the joys of a new book from an established figure, is the publishers, here Faber, get out their full toolbox of typographics, of leading, of white space, of a frontispiece, of thick recyclable paper, of a mysterious 10 pages at the back of the book left luxuriously blank as if someone miscalculated. It is a pleasing 250 pages to hold in the hands. As is the idiom, an oral story telling given a Victorian accent:
“No kindness or cruelty in whiteeye America was ever done without a piece of paper…” Unless, of course it was with a gun.