Review: A Long Long Way, by Sebastian Barry

Willie Dunne enlists in the British Army right at the beginning of World War I, and joins the 16th Irish Division, one of two southern divisions supporting Home Rule.  Willie begins his service excited about supporting his country, but quickly faces the intense fear of daily living at the front.  His regiment is composed of local boys, all from the same region, sharing common beliefs. Included are some memorable characters, like his Sergeant-Major Christy Moran, and Father Buckley, who ministers to the regiment.  Their shared experience creates a bond of friendship, but even that is threatened by the stress of battle.

Barry’s writing is beautiful.  Early on, he sets the scene for the carnage to follow:

And all those boys of Europe born in those times, and thereabouts those times, Russian, French, Belgian, Serbian, Irish, English, Scottish, Welsh, Italian, Prussian, German, Austrian, Turkish — and Canadian, Australian, American, Zulu, Gurkha, Cossack, and all the rest — their fate was written in a ferocious chapter of the book of life, certainly. Those millions of mothers and their million gallons of mothers’ milk, millions of instances of small-talk and baby-talk, beatings and kisses, ganseys and shoes, piled up in history in great ruined heaps with a loud and broken music, human stories told for nothing, for ashes, for deaths’ amusement, flung on the mighty scrapheap of souls, all those million boys in all their humours to be milled by the mill-stones of a coming war. (p. 4)

And, later, Barry describes the moments after a man has been court-martialed and shot, with echoes of the earlier passage:

The birds began to sing in the stand of trees behind the fallen body. It was as if he never had been. It was as if there never had been a proper reason for a life, as if all stories and pictures were a lie and a nonsense. It was as if blood were ashes and the song of a life was the only the painful tension of a baby’s cry. How his mother had loved him and rejoiced in his coming and fed him were hardly known. He seemed in that moment to leave no echo in the world. (p. 161)

Despite this superb prose, A Long Long Way was too much like other World War I novels I’ve read.  Think All Quiet on the Western Front, but with Irish soldiers, and the 1916 Easter Rising thrown in for good measure.  The soldiers begin as raw, enthusiastic recruits, until they see the horrors of battle.  Men are injured, left with lifelong scars or worse.  Other men are lost; friendships end in an instant.  Home leave is not the pleasant respite expected, but instead fraught with conflicting emotions.  And after a time, the protagonist and reader alike have to ask themselves, “what’s it all for?”

This is a well-written book, recommended if you’re new to war literature or interested specifically in the Irish war experience.

You may also be interested in my review of All Quiet on the Western Front.

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