One of Sebastian Barry’s extraordinary gifts as a writer is his boundless capacity for empathy, for inhabiting the skin, nerves and mouths of characters the river of history tends to wash away.
Barry’s literary project has been to give life and voice to ephemeral figures and to the silences and traumas that underpin the familiar stories.
Over the course of his eight novels he has returned, across time and space, to two families, the Dunnes and the McNultys, forming a complex web of resonances and reverberations, of connection, loss, and influence. This attention to the stories of individual figures within broader generations has created a humane and textured history of the Irish nation and its emigrant experiences; a history that gives space to the lost and forgotten, from an elderly patient in Roscommon regional mental hospital to a gender-fluid soldier in the American Civil War.
The novel opens with an emphasis on language and identity: 'I am Winona', our protagonist announces
The protagonist and speaker of his newest novel, A Thousand Moons, might be one of the most lost, the most eroded into the dust of history, a decision that will raise pressing questions about the politics of representation, though Barry treats his subject with sensitivity and nuance.
Winona, who we first meet in his 2016 novel, Days Without End, is a young Lakota girl, sole survivor of a massacre of her community, and adopted by the unlikely pairing of Thomas McNulty and John Cole, soldiers who also participated in the annihilation of her people. As Winona says, “they both gave me the wound and healed it, which is a hard fact in its way”.
A Thousand Moons is a continuation of the expansive and heart-felt Days Without End, which voiced the experiences of McNulty, a young Irishman who escaped the famine for a new life in America. This life is both brutal and beautiful, set against the violence of the Indian and civil wars and the sublimity of the US landscape, and underpinned at all times by the simplicity and depth of love between McNulty and his fellow soldier, Cole.
A Thousand Moons is both a sequel and a counterpoint, the vast landscapes of Days Without End now focused on the farm near a small town in Tennessee, where Thomas, John, and Winona reside, attempting to survive in the aftermath of violence and trauma. As Winona writes, “Even when you come out of bloodshed and disaster in the end you have to learn how to live”.
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.
It is now several years after the events of Days Without End and Winona is highly attuned to the precarity of her life as a “young Indian woman” in post-civil war America, someone without rights or citizenship. This precarity also extends to those she shares a life with, three former soldiers, one of who had been previously imprisoned for desertion, and two freed slaves.
“We set a great value on each living one of us,” she writes. “But the white people’s value set on us was not the same measure. We were nothing so to kill us all was just the killing of nothing so it meant nothing. It wasn’t a crime to kill an Indian because an Indian wasn’t anything in particular. I know these things so I am writing them down.”
Winona’s act of writing, of claiming a narrative, is one of the ways she wrests control over her circumstances, a theme that runs through Barry’s work. A Thousand Moons is a novel about weaving a voice, story, and self out of the shards of a language that is both inadequate to and elastic enough to meet the enormity of living.
As Winona writes, “It seemed to me life was a mire when you had so much said and so much not said and in between the two all the things that could have only been said by angels”. Winona’s writing is an attempt to capture that space of angels, and she, through Barry, writes like one.
Barry has described his own writing as motivated by “the thing that hurt me into trying to put something back in its place. To set up a thousand kingdoms to heal that one blasted site that has nothing on it”.
For Winona, who does not have the privilege of contemplating kingdoms, it is the cyclicality and change of “a thousand moons” that must serve her instead, the ultimate symbol of death and rebirth.