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.

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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.

Literature and War Readalong February 27 2012: A Long Long Way by Sebastian Barry

In last year’s readalong we also read a WWI novel from the Irish perspective. It was one of my favourites and since I’m fond of Irish literature, I thought it would be great to add another one this year. I wanted to read Sebastian Barry’s novel A Long Long Way since Danielle (A Work in Progress) first mentioned it. WWI has a special meaning for the Irish. They were neutral during WWII, so, clearly, WWI has another importance. There were reasons why they remained neutral during the second World war which are tied to their own history. While some men, like the character Willie Dunne in this novel, fought for the Allies, other forces in the home country were about to erupt and would lead to the Easter Rising. WWI, the Irish War of Independence, followed by the Irish Civil War, cost the Irish too many lives for them to risk being dragged into WWII as well. I’m certainly simplifying but in a nutshell this was one of the reasons.

Some of what I just mentioned is the topic of Barry’s novel.

Here are the first sentences

He was born in the dying days.

It was the withering end of 1896. He was called William after the long-dead Orange King, because his father took an interest in such distant matters. On top of that, an old great-uncle, William Cullen, was yet living in Wicklow, across the mountains as they used to say, where his father himself had been reared.

I have read Sebastian Barry’s award-winning The Secret Scripture three years ago and I was one of a very few who didn’t like it. It had nothing to do with the writing as such which is great and one of the reasons why A Long Long Way was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2005. The reasons why I didn’t like it were timing and implausibility. I had just read The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox before and the theme is the same, only I liked O’Farrell’s novel much better as it didn’t rely on implausible coincidences. Despite this unfortunate encounter I’m really looking forward to A Long Long Way and hope that some of you will join me.

Have you read Sebastian Barry?

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The discussion starts on Monday, 27 February 2012.

Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2012, including all the book blurbs, can be found here.

War Through the Generations 2012 Reading Challenge – The Great War

This is the fourth year in a row that Anna and Serena host the War Through the Generations Challenge. Since this year is dedicated to WWI I chose to join them. I have quite a few books on my piles that I would like to read. I’m not sure how many I will read but I aim for 5.

Here are the rules

Books can take place before, during, or after the war, so long as the conflicts that led to the war or the war itself are important to the story. Books from other challenges count so long as they meet the above criteria.

Dip: Read 1-3 books in any genre with WWI as a primary or secondary theme.

Wade: Read 4-10 books in any genre with WWI as a primary or secondary theme.

Swim: Read 11 or more books in any genre with WWI as a primary or secondary theme.

5 books means I sign up for Wade. I may or may not read more but I’m pretty sure I’ll stay on this level.

Three of the books chosen are the first three titles of my Literature and War Readalong 2012. If you want to read along, please see the page for details.

Zennor In Darkness by Helen Dunmore

A Long Long Way by Sebastian Barry

To the Slaughterhouse by Jean Giono

The other books that I will read for the challenge only are

Private Peaceful by Michael Morpurgo. It’s a children’s book and I’m very interested to see how someone writes about war for children.

Fly Away Peter by David Malouf. This is a suggestion from Kevin (The War Movie Buff). It’s a very short novel by an Australian author which seems interesting. I’ve watched a lot of Australian WWI movies, it’s about time to read an Australian WWI book.

Here are a few additional suggestions as my favourite war novels are all WWI novels:

Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Fornt. Probably the most famous one.

Pat Barker’s Regeneration TrilogyRegeneration –  The Eye in the DoorThe Ghost Road.

Jane Urquhart’s The Stone Carvers

Sebastian Faulk’s Birdsong 

Jennifer Johnston’s How Many Miles to Babylon? (here is my review).

If you would like to sign up, more details on the challenge can be found here.

Literature and War Readalong 2012

People have been announcing their challenges and events for 2012 for a while now so it was about time to let you see the list for next year’s Literature and War Readalong.

It was not easy to compile this list as the books needed to fulfill different criteria one of which was length. I didn’t want to include too many books over 300 pages. The only novel over 500 pages will make up for its length by being very readable.

The other criterion was the country. Like last year, I wanted to include books from as many different countries as possible. I know it looks as if there were more British books than anything else which is true, still I managed to include books from 8 different countries.

I will also join Anna and Serena for the War Through the Generations Challenge that is dedicated to WWI this year. My introductory post is due later this week. The first three novels in the readalong will also count for their challenge.

I have been asked whether it is possible to join but read something different. Since strictly speaking a readalong implies that people read and discuss the same book, it’s difficult but as I’m starting a Literature and War Project I thought of a good solution that will serve anyone who wants to join –  myself as well as I may be in the mood to read more than one novel focusing on war. The idea would be that anyone can join during the last week of the month and either participate in the readalong or review any other war themed book that will then be added to the project page. The objective of the page is to cover many different countries, wars, themes and even genres. For the War Through the Generations Challenge I will for example read a children’s book and maybe a crime novel set in the trenches. Next year I would also like to read a Sci-Fi novel like Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War that has been suggested by Max from Pechorin’s Journal. And finally I would like to read more non-fiction.

This year’s readalong will not always take place on Fridays but alternate between Monday and Friday depending on whether the Friday is during the last week of the month or not.

January, Monday  30

Helen Dunmore Zennor in Darkness , 320 p., England (1993), WWI

Spring, 1917 and war haunts the Cornish coastal village of Zennor: ships are being sunk by U-boats, strangers are treated with suspicion, and newspapers are full of spy-fever. Into this turmoil come DH Lawrence and his German wife Frieda, hoping to escape the war-fever that grips London. They befriend Clare Coyne, a young artist, struggling to console her beloved cousin John William who is on leave from the trenches and suffering from shell shock. Yet the dark tide of gossip and innuendo means that Zennor is neither a place of recovery nor of escape …

February, Monday 27

Sebastian Barry: A Long Long Way , 295 p.,  Ireland (2005), WWI

I discovered the book thanks to a comment from Danielle (A Work in Progress)

One of the most vivid and realised characters of recent fiction, Willie Dunne is the innocent hero of Sebastian Barry’s highly acclaimed novel. Leaving Dublin to fight for the Allied cause as a member of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, he finds himself caught between the war playing out on foreign fields and that festering at home, waiting to erupt with the Easter Rising. Profoundly moving, intimate and epic, A Long Long Waycharts and evokes a terrible coming of age, one too often written out of history.

March, Friday 30

Jean Giono:  Le grand troupeauTo the Slaughterhouse 224 p., France (1931), WWI

Conscription reaches into the hills as the First World War come to a small Provençal community one blazing August. Giono’s fiercly realistic novel contrasts the wholesale destruction of men, land and animals at the front with the moral disintegration of the lonely and anxious people left behind. Yet not all is despair. The novel ends with a message  of hope.

April, Monday 30

Helen Humphreys: Coventry,172 p., England (2008), WWII

Another book discovered thanks to Danielle (here)

On the night of the most devastating German raid on Coventry, two women traverse the city and transform their hearts. Harriet, widowed during WWI, is “”firewatching”” on the cathedral roof when first the factories and then the church itself are set ablaze. In the ensuing chaos she helps a young man, who reminds her of the husband she has lost, find his way back home where he left his mother.

May, Monday 28th

Nigel Balchin: Darkness Falls From The Air, 208 p., England (1942), WWII

I owe the discovery of Balchin to Guy (His Futile Preoccupations) who reviewed two of his books here and  here.

With ostentatious lack of concern, Bill Sarratt, his wife and her lover spend the war wining and dining expensively, occasionally sauntering out into the Blitz with cheerful remarks about the shattered night-life of London’s West End. But beneath the false insouciance lies the real strain of a war that has firmly wrapped them all in its embrace. Wit may crackle at the same pace as buildings burn, but personal tragedy lurks appallingly close at hand.

June, Friday 29

Len Deighton:  Bomber, 532 p., England (1970), WWII

This book is a suggestion from Kevin (The War Movie Buff). It is by far the longest on the list but it should be a very quick read.

The classic novel of the Second World War that relates in devastating detail the 24-hour story of an allied bombing raid.

Bomber is a novel war. There are no victors, no vanquished. There are simply those who remain alive, and those who die.Bomber follows the progress of an Allied air raid through a period of twenty-four hours in the summer of 1943. It portrays all the participants in a terrifying drama, both in the air and on the ground, in Britain and in Germany.In its documentary style, it is unique. In its emotional power it is overwhelming.Len Deighton has been equally acclaimed as a novelist and as an historian. In Bomber he has combined both talents to produce a masterpiece.


July, Monday 30

Masuji Ibuse: Black Rain – Kuroi Ame, 304 p., Japan (1969), WWII

I saw the book mentioned on Rise’s blog (in lieu of a field guide) where is was mentioned by Gary (The Parrish Lantern)

Black Rain is centered around the story of a young woman who was caught in the radioactive “black rain” that fell after the bombing of Hiroshima. lbuse bases his tale on real-life diaries and interviews with victims of the holocaust; the result is a book that is free from sentimentality yet manages to reveal the magnitude of the human suffering caused by the atom bomb. The life of Yasuko, on whom the black rain fell, is changed forever by periodic bouts of radiation sickness and the suspicion that her future children, too, may be affected.

lbuse tempers the horror of his subject with the gentle humor for which he is famous. His sensitivity to the complex web of emotions in a traditional community torn asunder by this historical event has made Black Rain one of the most acclaimed treatments of the Hiroshima story.


August, Friday 31

Aaron Applefeld: The Story of a Life – Sippur chajim, 208 p., Israel (1999), WWII

Aharon Appelfeld was the child of middle-class Jewish parents living in Romania at the outbreak of World War II. He witnessed the murder of his mother, lost his father, endured the ghetto and a two-month forced march to a camp, before he escaped. Living off the land in the forests of Ukraine for two years before making the long journey south to Italy and eventually Israel and freedom, Appelfeld finally found a home in which he could make a life for himself. Acclaimed writer Appelfeld’s extraordinary and painful memoir of his childhood and youth is a compelling account of a boy coming of age in a hostile world.


September, Friday 28

Richard Bausch: Peace, 171 p., US (2008), WWII

This was a suggestion from Sandra Rouse in a comment on one of this year’s readalong posts. 

It’s Italy, near Cassino. The terrible winter of 1944. A dismal icy rain falls, unabated, for days. Three American soldiers set out on the gruelling ascent of a perilous Italian mountainside in the murky closing days of the Second World War. Haunted by their sergeant’s cold-blooded murder of a young girl, and with only an old man of uncertain loyalties as their guide, they truge on in a state of barely suppressed terror and confusion. With snipers lying in wait for them, the men are confronted by agonizing moral choices…Taut and propulsive – Peace is a feat of economy, compression, and imagination, a tough and unmistakably contemporary meditation on the corrosiveness of violence, the human cost of war, and the redemptive power of mercy.

October, Monday 29

Maria Angels Anglada The Auschwitz Violin – El violí d’Auschwitz, 128 p., Spain (1994), WWII

In the winter of 1991, at a concert in Krakow, an older woman with a marvelously pitched violin meets a fellow musician who is instantly captivated by her instrument. When he asks her how she obtained it, she reveals the remarkable story behind its origin.

Written with lyrical simplicity and haunting beauty—and interspersed with chilling, actual Nazi documentation—The Auschwitz Violin is more than just a novel: It is a testament to the strength of the human spirit and the power of beauty, art, and hope to triumph over the darkest adversity.


November, Friday 30

Gert Ledig The Stalin Front  –  Die Stalinorgel , 198 p., Germany (1955), WWII

1942, at the Eastern Front. Soldiers crouch in horrible holes in the ground, mingling with corpses. Tunneled beneath a radio mast, German soldiers await the order to blow themselves up. Russian tanks, struggling to break through enemy lines, bog down in a swamp, while a German runner, bearing messages from headquarters to the front, scrambles desperately from shelter to shelter as he tries to avoid getting caught in the action. Through it all, Russian artillery—the crude but devastatingly effective multiple rocket launcher known to the Germans as the Stalin Organ and to the Russians as Katyusha—rains death upon the struggling troops.

December, Friday 28

Michael Herr: Dispatches, 262 p., US (1977) Vietnam

This novel has been suggested by at least three people. Kevin (The War Movie Buff) and Max (Pechorin’s Journal)

If you’ve seen the movies Apocalypse Now and Platoon, in whose scripts Michael Herr had a hand, you have a pretty good idea of Herr’s take on Vietnam: a hallucinatory mess, the confluence of John Wayne and LSD.Dispatches reports remarkable front-line encounters with an acid-dazed infantryman who can’t wait to get back into the field and add Viet Cong kills to his long list (“I just can’t hack it back in the World”, he says); with a helicopter door gunner who fires indiscriminately into crowds of civilians; with daredevil photojournalist Sean Flynn, son of Errol, who disappeared somewhere inside Cambodia. Although Herr has admitted that parts of his book are fictional, this is meaty, essential reading for anyone who wants to understand Vietnam.

I hope that many of you will feel tempted by the one or the other title on the list and am looking forward to great discussions. The books are all very different in tone, style and themes. As always there are a some I can hardly wait to read.

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How does the readalong work?

This is just a quick info for those who are new to blogging and /or the readalong.

I will review the book on a set date during the last week of the month. If you choose to read along you can either participate in the discussion in the comments page or post a review on your blog. I will add all the links to the reviews at the bottom of my posts.

The books are usually announced with some additional information or a short introduction at the beginning of the month.

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This post will be copied into the Literature and War Redalong 2012 page so you can find it again at any time.