Sebastian Barry
A Thousand Moons

Sebastian Barry, the current Laureate for Irish Fiction, drew worldwide acclaim for his previous book, Days Without End, a brilliant illustration of the brutality experienced by lovers Thomas McNulty and John Cole during the American Civil War. In this sequel, we find out what happened to Ojinjintka, the young Lakota woman adopted by the former soldiers and now quietly living as a teenager on her fathers’ farm under the name Winona Cole.

A Thousand Moons is a different proposition from its predecessor, in that the backdrop is less epic, more personal. The story takes place entirely in and around the small community of Paris, Tennessee, home to outlaws and embittered men scratching a living in post-slavery America. Winona remains anonymous, working the land alongside her doting fathers: “In my men I found fierce womanliness living. What a fortune. What a great heap of proper riches.”

Winona’s world is upturned when she is raped, the assault so violent and deviously planned that she is unable to recall how and where it happened or identify the perpetrators. The price of trauma and its associated frustrations become the driving narrative of the book, as Winona, conscious of John Cole’s temper, chooses to surreptitiously investigate the crime herself.

What follows is a detective novel of sorts, with Winona using her determination, guile and ability to blend in as means to expose the violent racism that still simmers in new Tennessee. Slavery may have been abolished and the Indian Wars over, but hatred and habit run deep in their rural community.

Barry’s prose style has evolved over the years into a rich grandiloquence, evident here in Winona’s confident, canny narration. Manumitted slave Tennyson Bouguereau, who works with the family, also proves a compelling character. His battery by racists deprives him of speech, creating another mystery for Winona to solve and forming an astute link between Civil War-era race relations and contemporary American tensions.

Reading Barry’s oeuvre as a series of connected stories – many of which feature members of the McNulty family – begs comparison between A Thousand Moons and its predecessor, but this does the book a disservice. While it does not match the grandeur of Days Without End, this subdued, constrained novel carries its own melancholic power.

Chris Flynn

Faber, 272pp, $32.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 28, 2020 as "Sebastian Barry, A Thousand Moons".

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Reviewer: Chris Flynn

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