A Thousand Moons

Sebastian Barry

Faber & Faber, £18.99

Those familiar with Sebastian Barry’s previous novel Days Without End will know the backstory to his latest. You do not need to have read this Costa prizewinning book to appreciate A Thousand Moons, but it will make the experience even richer. While newcomers to Barry’s 19th-century American West will quickly find their feet, since he subtly signposts all they need to know, those who followed the adventures of Thomas McNulty and John Cole in their soldiering days will want to learn what happened next.

The main events in Days Without End began when these two boys volunteered for the US cavalry in 1851. Their searing history, first in the Indian Wars, then the Civil War, was told in McNulty’s sing-song Irish-American voice, starting after he fled the famine in Sligo that killed his father and sailed into the land of so-called plenty. Cole, who was in rags when they met, was the great grandson of Indians who had been cleared from their land. When a few years later they join the army, older soldiers have set ideas: “Said Indians were to be cleared off the face of the earth”.

A Thousand Moons is the story of Winona, a Lakota orphan from Wyoming who, thanks to McNulty and Cole, survived the massacre of her tribe. Years afterwards, when its happenings seem scarcely credible, she tells her own tale. “1870s it must have been,” she informs us as she begins. By this time she has been living with Cole and McNulty, on a farm in Tennessee, for many years. Bright and educated, she works for the local lawyer, Briscoe, accounting and keeping his books.

The love she has been given by the couple, and theirs for each other, is warmly, almost spiritually conveyed. They form a household of what society would call misfits – Native American, gay and dirt poor. Yet while the trio are a perfect match for each other, the abundant affection in this self-made family cannot erase the pain they have all endured.

Winona was six or seven when her family was slaughtered. Few Cherokee or Chickasaw remain in the region where they now live, and she knows she isn’t welcome: “I was just the cinders of an Indian fire in the eyes of the town.” It is from her mother that the novel takes its title: “A thousand moons ago was her deepest measure of time” and she remembers her often: “by being able to make each moment in a child’s measure good she made us feel the possible long country of eternity.”

Unlike McNulty’s narrative voice, Winona’s is more ragged and elliptical, English not her first tongue, and many of her reference points are drawn from nature.

The farm employs two former slaves, Rosalee and her brother Tennyson, who keep house and work the land. A Thousand Moons takes place in what should have been a better world when, in the aftermath of the Civil War, slaves were freed. But as Barry makes clear from the outset, these were tense, violent times, loathing of blacks mingling with disgust at Indians, who had no rights whatsoever in the eyes of the law. It was a society of us and them, where the differences were often bloodily defined.

Winona lives with the knowledge that her people were seen as trash, and eradicating them was no crime: “Nothing, nothing, nothing, we were nothing. I think about that and think it is the very rooftop of sadness.” Her words carry an echo of McNulty’s own thoughts, years earlier, when he explained why outcasts and waifs such as Cole and him could take part in savagery: “We knew what to do with nothing, we were at home there.” The implications of that resonate throughout this unsettling novel. The anomie and inhumanity it suggests is terrifying, because it explains why barbarism thrives.

One day Winona comes home bleeding, distraught and so traumatised she cannot remember who raped her. Her brutalising becomes the spark that sets off a firestorm and what follows is a pitiless reminder that some members of society are powerless. Someone of Winona’s courage, who has seen the worst that men can do, should already know this. That she chooses not to succumb to victimhood – and in so doing finds love – is the novel’s plot. It gathers pace like a thriller right to its dramatic, pistol-cracking, ever so slightly unbelievable end.

Barry is a master at creating a mesmerising voice that commands your undivided attention, and filling a landscape so skilfully it feels like a place you already know. Like its predecessor, the period evoked in A Thousand Moons is not a thing of the past. Winona’s experiences, and those of the former slaves and the penniless Cole and McNulty, have their counterparts today, some of them right under our noses. Written with artful economy and restraint, it immediately demands a second reading. Perhaps it’s his dramatic background, or the emphasis he places on the human voice, but Barry fills every margin of the page with emotion and imagination. Very quickly you forget you are reading fiction and believe it is the very truth.