Sebastian Barry: A Long Long Way (2005) Literature and War Readalong February 2012

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.

Other reviews

Anna (Diary of an Eccentric)

Danielle (A Work in Progress)

Serena (Savvy Verse and Wit)

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.

43 thoughts on “Sebastian Barry: A Long Long Way (2005) Literature and War Readalong February 2012

  1. I skimmed your thoughts because I’m still reading the book. I fell a bit behind because I had to finish up my reading for the Indie Lit Awards. I did notice that you were disappointed with this one and that makes me a bit hesitant to continue because I’m not really liking the writing style either. Well, I’ll keep going and try to post my thoughts later in the week. We’ll get your review on War Through the Generations as well.

    • I had to be honest. 😦 It wasn’t only the style but it’s so drastic from the middle on… Unnecessarily so, I felt. Of course I would love to read your thoughts but I could understand if you stopped reading. Danielle is stuck on page 130. The style and the rhythm of the sentences were problematic.

  2. I’m kinda glad I skipped this one. The passage you included…I couldn’t even get through it. It would be hard to read an entire novel with that type of writing.

  3. I agree with you over the passage you gave as an example. How do you enter anywhere bizarrely? I can see gatecrashing into a party wearing a freaky costume might count but that would be about it. That passage put me off.

    I read someone else’s review of this last year, I think. I don’t recall anything like this, so now I’m going have to try and find it.

  4. I read this one back in 2007, and i can’t say that the style stood out, as particularly good or bad. I did think it was a bit of a page-turner.

    One quibble with your review, Ireland wasn’t on the brink of civil war, but a war of independence. The 1916 Rising and the British response to it marked a huge change in public opinion.

    I think that maybe because I am Irish I paid more attention to that side of the story. As far as I know there is a sequel to this, but I haven’t gotten around to looking for it, so I guess I wasn’t too enamoured of this 🙂

    • Fence, thanks, of course, I always mix them up although I’m fairly familiar with Irish history. The Civil War was later, it couldn’t have been then. I’ll change it right away.
      I was very interested to see how he would handle this. I’m not sure he did that so well either.

  5. Ouch! Such a negative review is rare on this blog. Too bad, the idea of an Irish soldier among British during the war of independence appealed to me. But I know better than reading a book you didn’t like.

    • I even tried to tone it down… I would have been glad if someone had written a more positive review and would have liked to see why they liked it. Kevin will still comment, I suppose, but have a feeling he didn’t like it. While reading it I was thinking that he will end up on my worst of 2012 list…

  6. I agree with some of your comments about Barry’s style etc but where i think his importance lies is in his rescuing from history the story of those “Loyalist Irishmen” who have been neglected in post independence Ireland;the serving soldier in the British Army,the Irish member of the Royal Irish Constabulary etc.I’m an infrequent visitor to your site but must thank you for getting me to read jennifer johnson,i’d been aware of her for a while but your reference to “How Many Miles To Babylon” prompted me to buy a copy and now i’m about 5 novels in and can’t recommend her too highly

    • Thanks for visiting and your comment. I’m very glad to hear that you like Jennifer Johnston. She is an amazing writer. I’ve only read two of her novels so far but both were outstanding.
      I agree with what you say about Barry’s novel but for me the merrits were drowned in his writing. I tried to mention those elements but didn’t underline or feel their importance as much. The way he constructed this novel and the style overshadowed everything I found well done. I had also quite a hard time to get a feeling for Willie. I thought he was quite faceless for over 50% of the novel. Maybe that’s what Barry wanted. I’m not sure.

  7. oops! I had meant to read this and February sort of got away from me. I will still hopefully work it in before it has to go back to the library. I enjoyed your post and look forward to what I think of it.

  8. First the positive things:
    – I think he writes well, if a bit florid – “Her body was a city of gold”
    – the characters are drawn well – I also had father Buckley as my favorite
    – the soldier talk was authentic
    – I liked the similes (you know that’s important to me) – “Four men killed that day. The phrase sat upon Willie’s head like a rat and made a nest for itself there.”
    – very anti-war

    – he does a great job on combat, especially the poison gas attack, but in the other scenes (ex. the attack on Messines Ridge) pulls back just when it’s getting good (combatus interruptus)
    – somethings are predictable ( Greta’s jilting him – but the cause was a surprise, although ridiculous)
    – I really did not follow the Irish stuff (I guess I’ll have to read up on it) – I found his father turning on him to be a huge overreaction
    – the units lack of combat was very unrealistic, not to mention the charmed lives of the core group; the theme of the Irish as cannon fodder was not supported by the narrative

    Other comments:
    – the soldier’s following the events in Ireland reminded me of Vietnam soldiers following the anti-war movement
    – two obvious “All Quiet” cribs – Christy is a lot like Kat; Willie’s death is similar to Paul’s
    – excellent coverage of the boxing match and then cursory coverage of the play – what is Barry saying?

    Favorite quotes:
    – His mother took him to her breast with the exhausted will that makes heroes of most mothers.”
    – There was no town or village on the anatomy of the human body – if the body could be considered a country – that had not tried the experiment of a bullet entering there.”
    – “There were bombs falling everywhere now in an industrial generosity.”
    – “The whole world had come out to decide some muddled question and Death in delight rubbed his bloody hands.”

    Overall, I liked it.

    • Weird… That you liked it. The similes and the style were huge put offs for me. Especially the rat one. After 150 pages I started to be really allergic to it. Or that one of your quotes “The bombs and their industrial generosity”…. Shudder.
      I agree with most of your negatives. I think a lot of what happens in Willie’s personal life in Dublin is not realistic.
      I thought that they were an amazing long time in the rear trenches. I didn’t think this was so realistic.
      It also reminded me of All Quiet on the Western Front. I didn’t want to spoil the book too much, so I left those comparisons out.
      I don’t think the father overreacted. You must read up on it, I think. I had afeeling that the Irish parts were hard to get. I think a lot went over the top of my head although I’ve watched many films and read a few things. I can only imagine that if you are less familiar than I am it would be hard to make sense.

  9. Wow…you have just given me a motivation to write review of my last book. It was the other way around to your review of long long way, I like the writing but bored with the story.

    I always enjoy how you write both the good and the bad sides of books you have read.

    • Thanks, Novia, I’m glad you saw it that way. I really thought I didn’t only say negative things. There are many passages that were very well done, I just didn’t like the writing and in places it was also badly written.
      I’m curious to find out which book you read.

  10. Sorry to know that you didn’t like this book much, Caroline. Hope the next book you read is better. Sometimes writers go out of the way to make the life of the main character in their book, tragic. It is sad that
    Willie doesn’t have many good things happening to him.

    I liked your observation on Barry using too many adjectives in that passage. Sometimes these adjectives are really too many.

    I haven’t read a war novel or memoir for quite a while now. I should read one, one of these days.

    • I thought the use of adjectives didn’t go well with the subject and some were just didn’t work for me. It had some very good parts that’s why I think it was somewhat sad but there are a lot of people who like his writing, so I guess it’s also a matter of taste.

  11. I sort of ignored all those excessive adjectives, and took it for one of those attempts at the meandering storytelling of the Irish….sort of old school. However, I didn’t appreciate author’s attempts to comment on authority…I think that he was trying to tackle too much and muddled his message (whatever that might have been) on some aspects — from the father-son to the soldier-military relationship…there seemed to be a larger point but it was never revealed well.

    This was just an OK read for me, but it helped get my first challenge book for the Irish challenge out of the way, so I guess that’s a plus. I did like the scenes with the mustard gas…I think those were well done and suspenseful.

    • It was meandering story telling, I agree. I thought the authority aspect was relatively well done, at least it seemed the main point of the novel. I thought the mustard gas scene was by far the best. All in all, I found some scenes very good but overall the novel didn’t work for me at all.

      • I was used to the meandering from Frank Delaney’s books, so that didn’t bother me. The adjective and description was sometimes a bit off. There were issues with the book, but overall it was ok and I enjoyed my time with Willie Dunne.

  12. Pingback: Review: A Long Long Way by Sebastian Barry « Diary of an Eccentric

  13. Finally finished it!

    I actually liked it more than I expected to. I just had to read a bit farther to get invested in the story. I agree there were some “florid” passages, but overall I didn’t mind them. I was confused about the Irish independence stuff, since I know so little of Ireland’s history.

    What bothered me the most was the ending. I noticed I was getting close to the end and I was wondering how it was going to end. Willie’s death was a bit of a shock to me. He survives the shelling and everything else and then bam! And when he’s singing?!? That was a bit much for me. I felt like Barry had no idea how to end it so he just figured a sniper would do the trick.

    • I’m very glad you finished it and liked it. I’m looking forwad to reading your review.
      I had a huge problem with that ending, I thought it was unnecessarily cruel. I had a week to think about it and resent it less by now. I can understand where he is coming from. He wanted this to be 100% anti-war. He managed that.
      I am more or less familar with Irish history, I guess without the one or the other movie and docmentary I wouldn’t have understood much of it either. He didn’t think too much about his non-Irish readers. Or so I felt. Thanks for participating in any case.

  14. Strangely when I was reading I didn’t notice the florid writing so much–though when you point it out there is certainly some clunkiness to it. I can see where it would be jarring if you were catching those as you read. I tend to get involved in the story so much I often overlook other elements, which I try not to do, but I am not as close of a reader as I’d like to be! I do agree that the perspective he writes from is very refreshing–I think that is what I liked most about the book. He tied it all nicely, though I was sort of expecting Willie to end up back in Ireland somehow and getting involved with the rebels–I’m glad Barry was more subtle about that aspect of it. He did pull the rug right out from under with that ending–why couldn’t Willie at least have received the letter before he died. It felt like such a despairing ending. I only knew what had happened on the last page (I don’t usually read the ending in advance…ahem), but I thought there would at least be some sort of reconciliation. It was quite bleak. Sorry it’s taken me so long to get to your post–it’s been a miserable week and am just now trying to catch up! The Giono should be an interesting comparison.

    • Don’t worry. Things are not always as quiet as we wish them to be. I think I found the writing very uneven. Not everything was as florid but when it was it startled me so much. I felt it clashed with the topic. It’s not that he can’t write, the mustard gas scenes are excellent and there are other great passages. Anna quoted one in which he enumerates all the nationalities who took part, that was very well done too.
      He really did pull the rug at the end. I never expected Willie to become political but I thought he would return. There was one horrible event after the other towards the end. I really resented it.

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