Sebastian Barry’s A Long Long Way is one of a few WWI novels told from an Irish perspective. Unlike How Many Miles to Babylon or many other WWI novels, its main theme isn’t class which was something I was glad for. Not that I think it wasn’t important but it has become one of the clichés of WWI literature. That and so many other elements. Luckily there aren’t all that many clichés in Barry’s novel.
Nineteen year-old Willie Dunne from Dublin volunteers in the early days of WWI. Like so many before or after him, he has no real reason, or they are at best quite vague and mostly personal. Maybe little Willie wants to prove himself and prove his father that he is worthy despite of his size. His father, a tall and imposing fellow, is a policeman. Something little Willie could never have become because he is barely taller than a midget. The army doesn’t care. They are in such great need of volunteers that they accept almost anyone.
We follow naive little Willie to Belgium where he spends his first months in the relative comfort of the rear camp, hardly seeing any fighting at all. Nothing really bad happens to little Willie and his company until one day, the soldiers see a yellow cloud hovering slowly over no-man’s-land. It takes them far too long to realize what that yellow cloud means, and only much too late, when many of them are already dying a cruel death or maimed for life, do they flee in horror. After this moment the novel takes a turn and becomes graphic and tragic and Willie loses his naivety at a breathtaking speed.
Although he sees many horrible things, it is only after his first leave to Ireland, that Willie is really affected. Not because he doesn’t fit in anymore – Barry doesn’t use this cliché either – but because Ireland is on the brink of the War of Independence and Willie, a compassionate man, is saddened to see the death of a young rebel and to realize that for the first time in his life, he doesn’t see things like his father.
Back in the trenches he tells the other Irish lads what he has seen at home. The newspapers write about it too and the British officers are aggressive and see them even more as cannon fodder than before. The longer the war lasts, the more intense the fighting in Ireland gets, the less the efforts and losses of the Irish are appreciated. In the end there are finally no more volunteers from Ireland. They do not want to fight for the enemy anymore and some would even gladly join the Germans. When Willie takes his second leave to Dublin, the aggression in the streets against his British uniform is open.
It is rare that I resent an author for his narrative technique but I do resent the way Barry wrote this novel. Furthermore I had a hard time with his style, I think it’s far from fluent and the overuse of adjectives at times was annoying. Just one example:
Now they rose up in the violent moonlight and entered bizarrely a huge field of high corn, the frail stems brushing gently against their faces, and because Willie was a small man, he had to grip the coat of the Sergeant-Major Moran in front or he would be lost, set adrift to wander for ever in this unexpected crop. The absurd bombs followed them religiously into the field, smashing all about the darkness, the stench of cordite and other chemicals obliterating the old dry smell of the corn.
As if the violent moonlight wasn’t enough, they have to enter the field bizarrely, followed religiously by absurd bombs? Admittedly, this was one of the worst passages but there were others, equally florid. This doesn’t explain why I resent him but it’s part of it. I felt tricked. This novel works like a trap door. You are lured into a devastated house which is bad enough but the moment you are inside, the carpet is pulled away from under you and the trap door opens. There is a building up of graphic scenes and an intensification of the tragedies that befall poor Willie that felt really mean. I was upset that the book had to end like it did, so absolutely depressing, without the tiniest little bit of hope or light. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not because the book describes graphic scenes, it’s because he intensifies them and accelerates it towards the end, when we do not see it coming anymore and, on top of that, has poor Willie experience one personal tragedy after the other.
With the exception of the dishonest structure, and an almost sadistic finishing off of the main character, the novel has a lot of elements that I thought well done. I haven’t read any WWI novel this eloquent on the use and the horrors of mustard gas. Nor any novel that showed the role of the priests so well. Father Buckley was my favourite character in this novel. A Catholic Priest with true compassion and a wide open heart. And I liked Barry’s choice of theme. His look at authority and its major representative, the father is very interesting. The father as a figure comes in many different forms, as the biological father, the King, the Priest. Coming to terms with authority and ultimately becoming a man and independent are important aspects. Little Willie isn’t a boy anymore at the end of the book, he is a man, with his own opinions, his own life. The book stays away from the usual criticism of high command but uncovers all sorts of hidden false authority.
A Long Long Way has been my second Sebastian Barry novel and I was also annoyed by the first. I just don’t like this type of artifice and manipulative writing that is so keen on effect.
I hope others have liked the book better. After all it has won many prizes. I’m looking forward to see what you thought.
A Long Long Way is my second contribution to the War Through the Generations Challenge hosted by Anna and Serena.
A Long Long Way was the second book in the Literature and War Readalong 2012. The next one will be Jean Giono’s Le grand troupeau – To the Slaughterhouse. Discussion starts on Friday March 30, 2012.