A Long Long Way by Sebastian Barry

This novel is the story of a young man who at the age of eighteen volunteers to serve in the First World War. It follows him from before enlistement through most of the war to his death in its final weeks. He fights on the Western Front, and experiences the wellknown horrors of trench warfare in that theatre.

A rather similar description could of course be applied to many novels. The classic example of the genre is probably still Im Westen nichts Neues by Erich Maria Remarque, first published in 1928 and translated into English the following year as All Quiet on the Western Front. The question might be asked why we need yet another book on the subject, though arguably the horrors of the mass slaughter of young men who at the start of the war had no idea what they would encounter have a powerful resonance that permits repeated treatments of the subject.

A Long Long Way has distinctive features, however. Willie Dunne is Irish, a Dublin construction worker, the son of a senior police officer who is firmly loyal to the British Crown in an Ireland then still part of the United Kingdom. Willie seems to enlist without much thought, in part from a desire to prove himself to his father, who has been disappointed by his dimunitive son's failure to reach the minimum height required to join the police. Willie's enlistment does not favourably impress his girlfriend, Gretta, who feels that it demonstrates a certain lack of knowing his own mind in a man who wants to marry her, and Gretta's ultimate decision to marry another man who has not gone to war forms part of Willie's private tragedy.

The fact that Willie is Irish and Catholic, part of what is initially an Irish regiment, is central to the novel, because it leads him to uncertainties and troubles of mind not experienced by soldiers from different backgrounds. Willie finds himself, perhaps a little too coincidentally, marching through Dublin on the day the Easter Rising of 1916 breaks out, and he is soon a bit confused as to where his loyalties lie, something he tentatively indicates in a letter to his father, who responds with fury. One of the successes of the novel is its treatment of this inner conflict: Willie never resolves it, and this is presented in a way that seems entirely convincing.

Willie is in some ways an 'everyman' (or at least every Irish World War I soldier) figure, but he comes vividly to life. He is of ordinary intelligence, likeable, brave enough but no hero, often confused, often frightened, but capable of snatching what happiness he can from his circumstances. His letters home are poignant and seem utterly convincing for someone who is, of course, little more than a boy.

The book has won considerable praise, though some military historians have pointed to errors of fact, particularly in regard to the command structure of the British Army. The suggestion that towards the end of the novel Irishmen were rarely encountered in the ranks seems exaggerated: 200,000 of them served, of whom 30,000 were killed. It is true, however, that for a variety of reasons, not all alluded to in the novel, recruitment from Ireland became sparse in the last years of the war. (Of course it must be remembered that Barry is writing a novel, not history, though the creator of an historical novel does probably have to observe some of the historian's obligations.)

There is much that is powerful and moving in this novel. Not least moving is the way towards the end Willie, having lost Gretta and having being more or less disowned by his father, feels real happiness at getting back to the front and rejoining the few of his longterm fellow soldiers who are still alive. The book is the work of an author well known as a poet as well as a novelist, and the style throughout is poetic. For this reader, at least, the poetic element in the style quite frequently seemed a bit overwrought. An example taken at random is from the opening paragrapy of chapter 20: 'Like an old ash tree he feared he would slowly hollow out, the rot taking him inwardly ring by blackened ring, until the winter wind came and blew him down'.

I was moved, and impressed, by this novel, though more on the first reading than the second. I did find that the style tended to irritate slightly the second time round. But I am glad to have read it.


Faye said...

Dear John
I am a only small way into the book but am very happy to be reading it -the writer is indeed poetical which is what is charming me so much at this stage. I also like the characterisation of Willie and am looking forward to it unfolding for me.

Faye said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
John Kennedy said...

Thanks, Faye. I will be very interested to here your final verdict.

Faye said...

Dear John,
Having finished Barry's novel I am happy to say i enjoyed it very much. I liked the poetic language which I noticed mostly in the first half of the book - a testimony i think to the fast pace of the story in the second half which i found enthralling.
I take your point about William being an Everyman - i agree. I dont see Barry's writing as strongly psychological but expert in giving a fine overview of the human condition of the characters in the setting especially the soldiers at war , of whom we know William the most.
The other fascinating part of the historical setting he dealt with - the heightened political changes taking place in Ireland in this period - is further testimony for me of his masterful ability to paint a big picture clearly and sensitively through the lives of simple characters living through amazing times.
The poignancy of so much of the storytelling was handled beautifully in my view - a very good writer indeed.
Thank you for introducing me to Barry. I will certainly read more of him.

John Kennedy said...

Thanks for your comments, Faye. Glad you enjoyed the book. I also found it an impressive piece of writing, though as I said I was more impressed the first time round than the second. However, I do find that incidents from the book tend to stay in the memory, no doubt in large part because Barry is so good at setting a scene, and I think he does give one some small idea about what it might have been like for ordinary people at the time.