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Sebastian Barry cover fun

Updated: Oct 7, 2023

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 or overplayed, it is an incredibly touching lgbt+ love story that feels implicitly central.

The lens of th novel 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. His next book, A Thousand Moons, is not loosely connected though but actually a direct sequel to Days Without End.

In Days Without End, Thomas McNulty and John Cole informally adopt a girl of the Lakota tribe, whose family have been wiped out by their own regiment. She is 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 also feels like an 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 and 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 perhaps lacking in real specificity to the vibe of the actual novel, since the scenery of a waterfall is not very representative of the country of the book. I like the inclusion of a rainbow. I like when literary fiction covers break away a bit from coy, vague allusive imagery. So just including an outright rainbow on the front of this book with lgbtq+ content at its heart is pleasingly strsightforward - no pun intended. 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' decently.

The most particular challenge with designing covers for literary fiction is that as a genre its defining feature is its defining feature 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 often has to act a bit above-it-all, and 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. 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 (which is after all Barry's biggest book) 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.

The A Thousand Moons cover is nice, but not as nice as its hardback iteration:

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

But its the Days Without End cover that makes me want to have a quick play with it and A Thousand Moons to see if I can't fix what bothers me about it and make them match the The Secret Scripture cover slightly more.

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: a strong accent colour alongside the black, white and gold; and the circle shape being broken up by the cliff that clips off the edge enlivens the composition.

There's something in the neatness of the circle on Days Without End tht makes the cover feel less bespoke to me.

So I tried bringing an accent colour into my quick, rough edit of Days Without End. I've also switched up the existing colours, making the foreground silhouette black so the shape bleeds into the balck surround like the cliff edge does on The Secrt Scripture.

My choice of colour made the sky look more moonlit, and furthermore I've emphasised the shape on the cover that could be intended as a sun or a moon originally. It emphasises the full moon shape as a linking devise across all three covers.

As for A Thousand Moons, it didn't rally did adjusting, but I did want to try adding in a colour, and I felt that if I was giving Days Without End a black surround, A Thousand Moons couldn't also have that. So I've switched up the colours here too, and brought back the lovely hardback tree-slices device for good measure.

It's extremely rough work, but I do quite like the changes. I think my adjustments 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. And it's the second figure, John Cole, who is picked out in gold - which is more or less how Thomas sees him.

At the same time the elements of the cover look a little more disjointed and less professionally cohesive than they 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 'gay old timey 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, so handwriting feels apt. and I think handwriting also, appropriately, connotes lyricism.

Feeling quite pleased with that but knowing that the proof-of-concept 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. The same template ends up with A Thousand Moons looking extremely 90s or 2000s where I don't think Days Without End does. Framing a vintage photograph to crop the head off was a very popular choice in the 2010s. Perhaps 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 tight crop the beads and loose dark hair still visible help communicate the broad idea of the figure here 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'd also spend some more time on the typography. I want to continue the handwritten look, but feel for this book it should be a more careful hand. The protagonist works as a clerk and the pace of the novel is more stationary and domestic than Days Without End.

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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