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Sebastian Barry cover fun

Updated: Nov 5, 2021

I read a fantastic novel recently; Days Without End by Sebastian Barry. It's the story of one Thomas McNulty, an Irish immigrant to America in the 1850s, with the bulk of the narrative following his experiences as a soldier in first the American Indian Wars and later the Civil War. Thomas's companion throughout is his love, John Cole, and while their relationship is never the subject of the book's drama, it forms an incredibly touching lgbt+ love story that feels implicitly central.

The lens onto the horrors of the Indian Wars is a really powerful one. Thomas is a thoughtful and moral protagonist but Barry doesn't grant him miraculously modern values and insight. He participates in atrocious violence, and the book's other characters are all a profound and honest mixture of admirable and abhorrent aspects and actions.

Days Without End forms part of Barry's ongoing loosely connected ouvre of historical novels which often checks in with the McNulty family, but A Thousand Moons is unusual for him in being a direct sequel.

In Days Without End, Thomas and John Cole informally adopt a girl of the Lakota tribe, whose family have been wiped out by their own regiment (named Ojinjintka but called Winona by her new family). A Thousand Moons continues the story from her point of view.

I won't go into specifics for the sake of spoilers, but obviously the young girl's position with regards to her adopted family is incredibly complicated. They are doting and loving; they also participated in the massacre of her family and the erasure of her culture.

There's what feels like a valuable ambivalence around all this in the novel. These aren't facts the novel makes the mistake of trying to work out and reconcile. It feels incredibly necessary to have a companion piece to Days Without End which takes a look at matters from the point of view of Ojinjintka/Winona herself.

I am interested in the covers for these novels and Sebastian Barry's novels generally.

I think they're perfectly fine but perhaps because they're published by the great design exponents of Faber, I feel a little disappointed that they aren't better still.

The original is probably the best of the three basic UK designs. It's stylish and attractive, though I think it lacks specificity to the vibe of the actual novel, the landscape not feeling very representative of the country of the book. I like the rainbow. I like literary fiction breaking away from coy, vague allusive imagery and just including a rainbow on the cover of a novel with lgbt+ content prominent. The typography is handsome, and I think the decorate device of the lines kind of picks up on the sense of 'ongoing-ness' or 'endlessness'.

The most particular challenge with literary fiction is that its defining quality as a genre... is kind of being genre-less. Like, sure a literary novel might contain this fantasy aspect or that murder mystery note, but the idea is that as literary fiction it's not bound by those genres. So cover design for literary fiction has to act above-it-all, reject outright, overt depiction of content.

And while that can sometimes be a bit of a tiresome pretense, I do see the value in not reducing thoughtful and wide-ranging books to simpler ideas, as if they're straightforward consumer goods. With Days Without End I do think it would do a disservice to reduce the cover identity to 'gay romance' or 'Civil War drama'. For me it's about striking that balance between including some specific references but also managing to convey that the book is more than that.

So I like the enigmatic-ness here, I just think perhaps it's a touch too anonymous.

Fairly unusually, Days Without End transferred from hardback to paperback without a redeisgn. Often this transition is a chance for the publisher to pick a new angle upon which to sell a book. You decide on one audience to appeal to with the hardback and then you get a chance to capture a second audience with the paperback. The common way it goes is that hardback covers are the more cutting-edge, stylish, ambiguous. Priorities include looking striking and cool pictured for newspaper reviews, and when facing out of 'New Titles' sections of bookshops. Then for paperback, where a book has to exist without these highlighting boosts, covers get more communicative and commercial.

In this case, I guess Faber didn't immediately repackage Days Without End for paperback because actually saw more value in a continued identity for the time being - the book had been so well-reviewed, had won awards, and so better to keep the look that was established in peoples' minds for now.

But they did later reissue the book in a different cover, which conforms to the exact 'paperback' priorities I just described. The second UK paperback leans much more heavily into commerciliality. It's still not totally rote or hack. I mean it is a Faber book. The designer has made choices that set it apart from the thoughtless unchallenging norms for historical fiction, in terms of font choice and palette. I come close to liking this one but for me the figures take it down a notch. Their dress and body language don't communicate anything. And I'm not sure what's going on with the tree being mirrored on the right. That stylistic choice seems to clash with the naturalistic approach to the rest of the scene and I just don't know what it's meant to connect to in the novel's themes. I don't know why the negative space between these trees isn't centred or why one is paler than the other.

The current UK paperback is better. It's good. I just feel like it could still be better. The silhouettes of two Union soldiers certainly immediately place one in the setting. But there's something that feels overall kind of thoughtless about the whole cover. This cover was part of a rebranding of some of Sebastian Barry's work coinciding with the publication of A Thousand Moons, and so devised to fit a wider set of style guides/templates.

Uniform author branding is useful and often very pleasing to look at. But it can also leave some individual titles more short-changed than others. In this case I feel the set of three that Faber issued in this style subscribes to law of diminishing returns. The Secret Scripture has a lovely cover, but Days Without End is more meh, feeling like the priority was to match something else rather than celebrate the specific book; and A Thousand Moons is really lacking.

Just to complicate things, the hardback version of this cover for A Thousand Moons is actually gorgeous:

That's so lovely; pretty as hell and with a really clever visual device for conveying this complex sense of a character who contains layers and contradictions, whose life is made up of many distinct stages.

This cover benefits from a flexibility about the dominating circle shape, and that makes the cover feel bespoke and the book important. The template serves the specific book rather than the other way around.

And that horse/rider silhouette really bugs me. It's fine on the hardback version but it's much more visible on the paperback and it's so clearly generic stock which doesn't fit the other design elements well.

Finally the title treatment on the paperback bugs me. It has weird leading (i.e. the spacing between lines of text): I don't know why the 'A' is floating so much above 'Thousand'. And the tangents bother me too, the vertical lines of some of the letters running up against the vertical lines of the image in an awkward way.

I had a quick play with these existing covers to see if my instincts about what I thought was lacking bore out.

I thought what made The Secret Scripture's cover work so well, which was missing from the other two paperbacks, was a couple of things: the inclusion of blue alongside the fold, black and white puts the cover beyond just using classic, safe choices of palette; and the circle shape being broken up by the cliff that clips off the edge enlivens the composition.

So I tried bringing some colour into Days Without End, and switched the existing colours up to create that same kind of bleed between surround and central image (i.e. here the silhouette of the main man is now in black, meaning her merges at the shoulder with the black surround). In choosing a colour to add I went for one that made the sky look more moonlit, since that way the moon is a common device across all three covers.

(As for A Thousand Moons, I just went back to the lovely hardback version, and brought a touch of color in to match the others.)

It's extremely rough work, but I do quite like the changes. I think my changes make Days Without End more visually lively, and even brings in a little more meaningful implication. Now we're looking through the main figure (i.e. main character Thomas McNulty) which seems to match the approach of the novel quite well.

At the same time the elements of the cover look a little more disjointed and less professionally cohesive than it did. I think the basic choices are good, you'd just need to spend a lot of time tweaking and fine-tuning to pull that back.

I also had a go at working up my own idea/s for a Days Without End cover from scratch.

I went with the fairly obvious starting point of finding period photographs. I remembered seeing photos of Civil War soldiers in poses of casual intimacy - whether attributable to changing codes within male friendships, and the particular intensity of friendships founded in warfare; or simply mlm romances having always, of course, existed.

I talked above about the common aim in literary fiction covers to avoid too simplistic or single-minded a cover, and specifically how I wouldn't like to see Days Without End reduced visually to 'it's about gay soldiers'. So I was interested in seeing if using a photo like this could be framed in a way which wasn't too cheap or obvious.

This is my favourite idea I came up with:

It's all about the hands. They have that quality one is always looking for in cover imagery - tension or ambivalence. You can't quite tell if the hands are touching. The physicality is intimate either way, but in that uncertainty about whether the one man's thumb is quite reaching the other's hand, is the feeling of intriguing uncertainty that draws one into a novel. I think.

I chose the title typography based on the idea of era-appropriate handwriting. The novel is first-person with something of the feel of a memoir, which connects, and I think the aesthetic also connects to Barry's style, particularly gloriously in use in this novel - the beautiful lyricism of his writing.

Feeling quite pleased with that but knowing that the proof is really in trying to turn these choices into a style guide applied across other covers, I turned to A Thousand Moons.

It's interesting. A Thousand Moons looks extremely 90s or 2000s where I don't think Days Without End does - but does perhaps look a little old-fashion ed in its design tropes. Framing a vintage photograph to crop the head off was a very popular choice in the 2010s. Because it was normally something applied to single female figures, the Days Without End cover doesn't suffer for that association but A Thousand Moons does.

Of course I'm using that framing for the same reason it was so popular then. Cropping out faces allows one to use images whose faces might not match your character's very well, it helps turn specific photographs of individuals into more symbolic and abstract ones. It allows one to focus on other details that might be the important part. In both of these examples, what's important is the hands. Faces pull focus.

So I'm still attached enough to the basic elements to take another pass:

Unfortunately I can't track down a hi-res version of the vintage photo and I can't find another which does the same job. Even at a hard crop the beads and hair showing help communicate the broad idea of the figure being Native. Most images of 19th century American women with guns have an Annie Oakley vibe (or indeed are literally of Annie Oakley). But this woman is cradling the weapon tenderly, which both speaks more to the gun's place within the novel and also connects to the visual motif of 'loving hands' on Days Without End in expressing emotion and tenderness.

If I had a better version of the image to work with I'd get into playing with applying some tinting. The Days Without End image is tinted and it adds so much intimacy, closeness and richness to the cover. The one I've used for A Thousand Moons is simply sepia, but I could add my own digital tinting to emulate the benefits of that.

I've also taken a look at the type, tweaking it in ways which I think help bring a stronger sense of identity to the book. The type obviously still uses the same basic period-cursive approach as Days Without End but the hand is neater and more prettily balanced, more considered than the hasty scribble of the other book. That ties well to the protagonist's greater level of education compared to that book, her occupation as a clerk, her more thoughtful voice and less frantic story.

This version hasn't yet solved the problems of old-fashioned-ness but it does complement Days Without End better, which helps.

Talking of type, one point I haven't mentioned that I like across both covers is the trails of the cursive writing running and disappearing of the sides. In both cases it connects to the allusion to 'a long time' contained in the title. There's a sense of continuity and continuation. Interestingly I noticed later that a couple of Barry's other books did exactly that with the typography:

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