This is a departure for Sebastian Barry, a book set entirely in mid to late nineteenth century America. We follow the fortunes of two young men, John Cole and Thomas McNulty, who sign up for the army and end up fighting in the Indian Wars and then the Civil War. I say it is a departure because other Barry novels I have read (such as The Secret Scripture and The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty) are set and rooted very firmly in Ireland. In his latest, wholly American tale, there are many Irishmen, newly settled in the new land and in many cases recruited to build the railroads or fight in the army. They pick each other out even when they are on opposite sides of the Civil War.
Cole and McNulty are not quite what they seem. Yes, they have learnt to fight and to kill if they need too, but they also have a softer side. Thrown together as boys under a hedge, they join forces and find their first job in saloon stage shows where they dress as women for the benefit of the men in small mining towns. Somehow the rough miners are entranced and enamoured by the beautiful young boys. As the story progresses we come to realise that the two men become lovers and that McNulty likes to assume the persona and dress of a woman. Outwardly they fight in a male-dominated world while privately they love one another. There is a tenderness amongst the harsh realities of survival.
The story is essentially the history of these two men, in and out of the army, back onto the stage in dresses, and all manner of hardships and adventures in between. Eventually they leave the military and take with them a young Indian girl who they adopt as their daughter.
I like the story, it is very authentically narrated by McNulty who has a curious way with words and phrases. Not the words of an educated man but those of a wise one nonetheless. Describing just what he sees. The relationship between Cole and McNulty is sensitively handled and the naïveté of both voice and behaviour makes this a very special novel. Recently awarded the best novel prize in the Costa Book Award in the UK, it is well deserving of that accolade.