Mostly, however, the writing brings off Barry’s characteristic balancing act, between the lyrical telling that comes to him naturally and the grubby, tormenting world he wants to show us. “You just had to look like you done something wrong in America and they would hang you, if you were poor.” The politics and power struggles, male brutality and race rhetoric in this novel are imagined with an intuitive, unsparing realism – and so is its material detail: “great wheel gouges hewn into the soil”, a taken-aback black bear in the woods, dirty suds from the women’s washing “fleeing downriver”, Aurelius Littlefair with a “mouth of forsaken teeth”. Barry’s prose always has this sturdy yet dreamy quality of a fairy story, even when he takes us into the darkest places of cruelty and violation – or perhaps especially when he takes us there. Because of something unguarded in his writing, and his idiom borrowed from ordinary speech and proverbial wisdom, we can trust him to touch the terrible stories from our collective past without betraying them, or turning them merely into clever art. His work reminds us how much we need these rare gifts of the natural storyteller, for reckoning with our past and present.
The novel opens with an emphasis on language and identity: “I am Winona”, our protagonist announces, yet immediately follows her assertion with the acknowledgement of the loss of her history: “In early times I was Ojinjintka, which means rose. Thomas McNulty tried very hard to say this name, but he failed, and so he gave me my dead cousin’s name because it was easier in his mouth. Winona means first-born. I was not first born.” These opening sentences encapsulate the novel’s concerns, the gaps between self and language and how one might attempt to negotiate dispossession, violation, and erasure.
Where McNulty was laconic about his devotion to John Cole, Winona, watching them, speaks eloquently of their mutual tenderness, and when she writes about Peg, the other Indian girl she falls for, there is a lovely gauche urgency in her acknowledgement of her passion. Barry has written a number of novels about the McNulty family. Only loosely related in terms of the characters’ degrees of kindredness, and widely various in their voice and tone, they add up to a patchwork picture of the Irish diaspora. A Thousand Moons is a pendant to that picture – a reminder that the “nothing” race of the Irish have their equivalents elsewhere, in societies where other races have been as cruelly and absolutely judged “worthless”.
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.
This novel, like its predecessor, provides a compelling answer to those who claim that authors should stick to their own when it comes to telling stories. The idea of a middle-class white male writing in the voice of a cross-dressing teenage lesbian Native American might feel out of step with its times, but prose this good is a kind of enchantment, transcending the constructs that are supposed to define us to speak in a voice that is truly universal.
But forget the plot: it’s the writing that puts Barry on the side of the angels. It is vivid, lyrical and awash with metaphors and quasi-biblical proverbs — ‘a human finds a little medicine in another’s sadness’. The inner lives of the characters shine with a timeless quality. Which brings me to the title. The thousand moons refers to Winona’s mother’s (and therefore the Lakota tribe’s) concept of time, which is a kind of continuity. If you keep walking long enough, you’ll meet your ancestors.
This is a less satisfying novel than its predecessor; it does not quite stand on its own. Its tricky plot lacks flow and sometimes feels over-engineered; when Winona falls for a wild and beautiful girl named Peg, their romance has the air of a decision made by the author rather than something organic and true. And yet the reader longs for Winona to find contentment. Her happiness with her adoptive parents can’t repair the loss she has suffered in her childhood: not only the loss of her parents but the loss of her entire culture.
Is it possible for a male Irish author to channel the persona of a Native American woman? Of course; don’t be silly. Interestingly, the girl’s voice as narrator is fluent; when she talks, however, it’s in flawed English.
The narrative does grip you. Winona is raped, but can’t find the memory or the words to say by whom. Her fathers are outraged but impotent; Rosalee, the freed slave, has to clean her up afterwards and has no words for it either. Then there’s an attack on Tennyson, the gentle black man; afterwards he can’t name his attacker either in words and he can’t sing any more. Violence makes them mute.
Barry persuasively portrays 19th-century America as a time of radical flux regarding notions of race, gender and sexuality.
Yet there’s also a whiff of wish fulfilment here, not least in Winona’s clear-eyed, conciliatory view of her adoptive fathers’ role in the violence that wiped out her family — as if she’s engineered to redeem the sins of the West.
Like Days Without End, this is a richly poetic read. Barry is concerned again with shifting sexual, personal and political boundaries, with the effects of tumultuous times — of rivalry, lawlessness and fissure — on individuals, families and communities, and with interactions between those on opposite sides of a political debate. Such concerns could not, of course, be more relevant.
Barry is an extraordinary descriptive writer. The prose is tightly wound, and seems so persistently on the edge of violence that acts of compassion are almost as shocking as those of brutality. These dark moments are rendered in impressionistic spurts, though Barry’s primary mode is a rich, emotive lyricism. “I think now of the great value we put on what we were and I wonder what does it mean when another people judge you to be worth so little you were only to be killed?”
All of this makes the novel’s finale especially puzzling, a narrative climax that wouldn’t have been out of place in the rackety melodramas McNulty and Cole used to stage. But if this makes A Thousand Moons ultimately a less satisfying novel than Days Without End, it is still a page-turner with heart and soul. Towards the end, Winona confesses that what she most yearns for is “the sacred stupidity of ordinary life”, and that is what this novel provides by the bucketful. Like all of Barry’s best fiction, it examines life from an angle that makes it look as fresh as a new moon.
This astonishing novel follows Days Without End, which won the 2016 Costa Book of the Year. It picks up the story of Winona, the young Lakota orphan adopted by former soldiers Thomas McNulty and John Cole. She now lives peacefully with them on a tobacco farm in 1870s Tennessee after the trauma of her past. But peace is fragile in the aftermath of the Civil War, and violence comes in many forms as Winona will discover. But, as she says: "Even when you come out of bloodshed and disaster in the end you have got to learn to live..." A(nother) masterpiece.