Sebastian Barry’s new novel extends again the great web of story and history he has been weaving for years now out of the fictional Dunne and McNulty tribes, picking up fragments of anecdote and character from the past of his own family, developing and transforming them. Barry is a poet and playwright as well as a novelist, and he is Ireland’s second laureate for fiction, following Anne Enright. His ambitious and Balzacian novel-project – which never feels programmatic, each book seeming to grow organically to become part of the whole – has assembled over time a richly significant map of the Irish diaspora, and of the ways Irish lives have intersected with global history, alongside the drama of their history unfolding at home. In The Secret Scripture Roseanne McNulty approaches her 100th birthday in a Roscommon psychiatric hospital; in The Temporary Gentleman Jack McNulty makes a life for himself in colonial and postcolonial Ghana. In A Long Long Way, set in the first world war, because Willie Dunne serves in the British army, he is seen as a traitor by some in Ireland; he is later caught up fighting the rebels in the Easter Rising.
In A Thousand Moons we’re reunited with Thomas McNulty and John Cole from his last book, the magnificent Costa-winning Days Without End, which was set against the American Indian wars and civil war. At the end of that novel Thomas and John, soldiers and cross-dressers and a loving couple, have settled down on Lige Magan’s tobacco farm outside Paris, a small town in West Tennessee. There they compose an oddly assorted family, including ex-slaves Rosalee Bouguereau and her brother Tennyson, and Thomas and John’s adopted daughter, Winona, a Native American orphan whose real name, she tells us, is Ojinjintka, which means “rose” in the Lakota language. Oddly assorted families, in which race and gender and role are all mixed up, are at the heart of Barry’s ideal. Even the wicked and violent men in his novels, in fact, won’t lie down neatly inside their category description.
It is Winona who narrates A Thousand Moons, picking up the story when she is becoming a young woman and Thomas and John aren’t good-looking boys any longer, but hardworking men beginning to turn grey – though Thomas still puts on a dress for special occasions. Winona is clever and John has taught her how to read and write; she’s working for lawyer Briscoe, who is committed to reconstruction and justice for all, at a time when postwar hopes of a new south are beginning to crumble and the defeated Confederates are agitating, stirring racial violence. At the novel’s opening Winona is hoping to marry Jas Jonski, a Polish boy who works at the local store and doesn’t seem to mind that she’s a Native American, unlike most of the Paris inhabitants. “I was just the cinders of an Indian fire in the eyes of the town. Indians in bulk were long gone from Henry County. Cherokee. Chickasaw. Folks didn’t like to see an ember drifting back.”
Then one night Winona is raped – although neither she nor Rosalee has a word for what’s happened, and the men in their household take a long time to catch on. Winona was drinking whiskey and has no clear memory of who raped her, though she knows it may have been Jas. The rest of the novel is the complicated fallout from that violent despoiling.
Barry prefers moral complication to the righteous simplicities of “us” and “them”, just as he’s always written against the grain of certain pieties in Irish history. In The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty, the young Eneas joins the Royal Irish Constabulary, then witnesses the murder of a fellow policeman: Irish rebels sentence him to death, and he escapes to a lifetime of wandering in exile. Willie Dunne in A Long Long Way is torn in anguish between his loyalist father and the passionate conviction of the rebels. Political conflict isn’t seen in the abstract, but gets expressed along the fault lines in families, or inside individuals. Winona knows that Thomas and John took part in the massacre of her Lakota family, though they saved her life afterwards, and have devoted themselves ever since to her wellbeing: “They both gave me the wound and healed it, which is a hard fact in its way.” When, in A Thousand Moons, Winona goes in disguise as a boy to the camp of Confederate renegades, and meets her enemy Aurelius Littlefair in his cabin, she fears she’s entering “into the very hall of evil”; but in fact his room has “an air of clemency and order”, and Aurelius treats her with grave courtesy, explaining his aspiration, in a perfect world, to have all the children educated. The sheriff’s deputy Frank Parkman is mostly bigoted and vicious, but in one episode, when he thinks Winona is a Native American boy, he brings her a bowl of stew and asks very gently if she’d mind kissing him. “If you don’t care to, I don’t mind one whit … Hey, Cochise … You not offended?” Barry is interested in how innocence can persist inside an individual, mysteriously all mixed up with their violence and wrong ideas and wrongdoing.
If this novel isn’t as persuasive as Days Without End, it’s partly due to the eternal problem with sequels; the fresh action is overshadowed by what has come before, and there has to be quite a bit of explaining of backstory. Some characters – particularly Thomas and John – are handed down wholesale from the past, rather than made complex in new treatment, and perhaps because of that the household at Lige Magan’s farm can feel a little too good to be true, a folksy dream of toleration and forbearance in the midst of a dark world. We have it all through Winona’s telling, and she’s passionately invested in their goodness; it may be because he’s chosen a woman’s voice for his narration that Barry makes it at moments a little too sweet.
Late in the night the way people do we settled down like horses after a long gallop and enjoyed the blazing fire and felt pretty comfortable in our dark cabin under the stars and for that while my heart was not sore and Lige Magan turned to the medley of lullabies and laments on his fiddle and the four strings vibrated their lovely music and our hearts were full.
And when Winona falls in love with Peg from the renegade camp, Peg needs to exist with more solidity on the page, rather than just through Winona’s besotted description: “If you could make honey hover in the air it would be Peg. If you could take a sliver of the wildest river and make it a person it would be Peg.”
Mostly, however, the writing brings off Barry’s characteristic balancing act, between the lyrical telling that comes to him naturally and the grubby, tormenting world he wants to show us. “You just had to look like you done something wrong in America and they would hang you, if you were poor.” The politics and power struggles, male brutality and race rhetoric in this novel are imagined with an intuitive, unsparing realism – and so is its material detail: “great wheel gouges hewn into the soil”, a taken-aback black bear in the woods, dirty suds from the women’s washing “fleeing downriver”, Aurelius Littlefair with a “mouth of forsaken teeth”. Barry’s prose always has this sturdy yet dreamy quality of a fairy story, even when he takes us into the darkest places of cruelty and violation – or perhaps especially when he takes us there. Because of something unguarded in his writing, and his idiom borrowed from ordinary speech and proverbial wisdom, we can trust him to touch the terrible stories from our collective past without betraying them, or turning them merely into clever art. His work reminds us how much we need these rare gifts of the natural storyteller, for reckoning with our past and present.
• A Thousand Moons by Sebastian Barry is published by Faber (RRP £18.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com.