- 07 Apr 20
Pride. And Prejudice.
A follow-up to Barry’s movingly poetic Days Without End, A Thousand Moons takes a minor character from the former and moves her centre stage. If you’re a fan of Barry – the current Laureate for Irish fiction and the only author to have ever won the prestigious Costa Book of the Year award twice – you’ll have an inkling of what to expect here. He has a marvellous talent for combining the epic and the intimate: Days Without End was set against the backdrop of escape from the Irish Famine and then the Indian Wars and the American Civil War, but it was really more about the love story between Thomas McNulty and John Cole.
McNulty’s – and Cole’s – sexuality, and the idea of McNulty’s cross-dressing as empowering expression, came from the conversations Barry had with his son, who came out as a teenager, Barry having previously said how he drew inspiration from the strength of the love between his son and his boyfriend. If the relationship at the core of that book was against the grain in 19th-century America, then it stepped further from acceptability when the couple adopted an orphaned Native American Girl. It is this character that A Thousand Moons is based around.
Hers is a confused identity. She is known as Winona, but this isn’t her real name. That Indian name proved unpronounceable to McNulty, so she is given the one of her dead cousin instead. They live on a farm outside the small town of Paris, Tennessee, in a time of uncertainty and violence. Winona, as a Native American, has no rights in the eyes of the law; lower even than the “black-skinned saint of a woman” Rosalee Bouguereau or her brother Tennyson, both freed slaves. “In the eyes of the Great Mystery we were all souls alike” says Winona, but the locals around Paris do not see things the same way.
She is attacked and raped by Jas Jonski, a man who has decided for himself to take her as his bride. The act is so traumatising that Winona remains unsure as to what actually happened, despite the physical evidence. Tennyson is beaten - ostensibly for obstructing Jonski but just as much for the crime of simply being black and walking around untethered – and is never quite the same, his song silenced. Even the characters of McNulty and Cole – men who forged their own destiny in a time of war – seem powerless in this new ‘peace’. The lawyer Briscoe, who employs Winona, is a decent man, but he too pays a price for it. “Cruel reasons rule these times”
Light enters the young girl’s life when she falls in love, but this too is outside the accepted norm, and its arrival plants a seed that threatens to bear poisoned fruit later as circumstances take a turn predicated on another act of violence.
Barry’s lyrical and narrative skills are beyond question, and he paints a vivid picture of a land unsettled in the turmoil and retribution of the tense post civil-war atmosphere, exemplified by the particularly gruesome end for one Imre Grimm. His message is that love – in its many forms – conquers all, but even this apparent truism is tempered by the realisation that while “even mournful folk could borrow” from it, it is “a mortgaged joy.” The bill always comes around.