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.

Helen Dunmore: Zennor in Darkness (1993) Literature and War Readalong January 2012

Helen Dunmore’s first novel Zennor in Darkness is set on the Cornish coast in 1917. The sound of war can be heard from afar. The first young men return from France, some of them are missing limbs, others are shell-shocked like Claire Coyne’s cousin John William. Although the war is present on every page, in the suspicions of the people, the fear that all the boys will be drafted, the noise the wind blows over from France, the scarcity of money and food, this is a novel of dreamlike beauty. Dunmore conveys the soft light of the Cornish coast, the beauty of the lovely landscape, the slow pace of life. This softness is mirrored in the way she changes the point of views, blurring the edges, softening the transitions, so that it feels as if one person’s consciousness and interior monologue, was flowing gently into that of another character. Reading it made me dreamy and I felt as if I was watching a water-color come to life. I read this book very slowly. I could have finished it in a few evenings but I put it aside frequently to make it last.

Zennor in Darkness interweaves the fictional story of Claire Coyne, and her cousin John William with the story of D.H.Lawrence and his wife. Claire lives alone with her father. Her mother who died while she was still very little was from Cornwall, while her father is an outsider, just like Lawrence. He comes from a rich Londoner family and was always seen as an intruder. Claire’s maternal grandparents, her aunts, uncles and cousins live close by. The children are a tight-knit community since they were little kids. They are so close that, although it seems logical for us, nobody suspects Claire and John William to be lovers.

The war has taken its toll, hundreds of thousands are dead and a lack in officers makes it possible for someone like John William who isn’t noble, to become an officer. He returns from France for a brief visit before he will join a training camp where he will stay a few months before being sent back to France.

Before his return Claire has befriended D.H. Lawrence. She is fascinated by him and even more so by his attractive German wife, Frieda. Not everyone is happy about their stay in Zennor. Germans are suspected to be spies and people would like to see them gone. Lawrence and his wife are happy in Cornwall. Their dream of a community of like-minded people has been shattered after Katherine Mansfield and her husband have left but still they love Cornwall and their simple life. Lawrence works in the garden, befriends the villagers. It’s not as easy for Frieda but she likes it as well. To the Lawrences Cornwall means more than just a place to stay, it is a refuge, a shelter and to watch their dream being crushed is painful.

Lawrence discovers that Claire is talented at drawing and encourages her to pursue a career. She introduces him to John William and Lawrence feels, more so than Claire, that John William hides something. One evening, when the two men walk alone in the balmy Cornish night, John William lets himself go in front of Lawrence, unable to hide the signs of shell-shock any longer.

Zennor in Darkness is a very beautiful novel and if anything it made me want to read more of Helen Dunmore. And it also made me want to return to D.H. Lawrence whose books I have abandoned for too long. I’ve always liked D.H.Lawrence, his novels, short stories, essays and letters and found that she captured him and his relationship with his wife very well. Frieda was a von Richthofen. A cousin of the famous Red Baron. Abandoning her marriage, her children and her privileges must have cost her a lot. I was always fascinated by this free spirit. The end of the book moved me. I knew the part related to the Lawrences, still it made me angry, while the fictitious story of Claire and John Williams made me sad.

What I found astonishing is the combination of beauty and horror. The descriptions of the Cornish coast, its air, light, flora and fauna alternate with passages like this one.

In Flanders the struggle for the Passchendaele Ridge continues. The poppy-blowing fields are ploughed by German and English guns, and sown with a litter of lost equipment, a seeding of blood and bone. Soon it will be autumn there too, and heavy northern rains will fall. Men will be listed missing, presumed drowned – a new classification for the lists in the newspaper. They are presumed drowned in the mud in which they live and often die. The men who came ‘right away to Blighty’ with John William will return to Flanders with their new commissions soon. Their training lasts only three months, and then they are wanted back at the Front. Hammond will die on a mission described to him by a senior officer as ‘rather a tricky bit of patrol-work’. His body will not be found. Simcox, a dozen feet to the left of him, will survive.

Ultimately however Zennor in Darkness is a novel about the difficulty to know another person. Either because you see them as strangers, or because they are too close for you and you lose all perspective. Like in real life, in many instances a stranger understands another character better than his own family, while at the same time, the community projects fear on the outsider.

In any case this was an excellent start to the Literature and War Readalong 2012.

Other reviews

Danielle (A Work in Progress)

Lizzy (Lizzy’s Literary Life)

Sarah (A Rat in the Book Pile)

Zennor in Darkness is also my first contribution to the War Through the Generations Challenge hosted by Anna and Serena.

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Zennor in Darkness was the first book in the Literature and War Readalong 2012. The next one will be Sebastian Barry’s A Long Long Way. Discussion starts on Monday February 27, 2012.

Louise Welsh: Tamburlaine Must Die (2004)

It’s 1593 and London is a city on edge. Under threat from plague and war, it’s a desperate place where strangers are unwelcome and severed heads grin from spikes on Tower Bridge. Playwright, poet, spy, Christopher Marlowe has three days to live. Three days in which he confronts dangerous government factions, double agents, necromancy, betrayal and revenge in his search for the murderous Tamburlaine, a killer who has escaped from between the pages of Marlowe’s most violent play. The Final Testament of Christopher Marlowe is a swashbuckling adventure story of a man who dares to defy God and state and who discovers that there are worse fates than damnation.

I really enjoyed Tamburlaine Must Die. I liked Louise Welsh’s latest novel Naming the Bones (here’s the review) and wanted to read another one and I wasn’t disappointed. However I know the book got very mixed reviews and this mainly because of the language. Clearly Welsh tried to write 16th century English and might not have been 100% successful. I didn’t care or – because I’m not a native speaker – didn’t notice. I thought the language was beautiful.

In her novella Louise Welsh lets Christopher Marlowe, the famous playwright, tell his final ten days. Someone has written a libel in his name, imitating his writing, signing with the name of the main-protagonist of one of his plays, Tamburlaine. Welsh imgines how and why he must have been killed, how he spent his last days, sleeping with men and women, drinking too much, picking fights, putting himself in danger through his blasphemies.

I think Christopher Marlowe is one of the most fascinating figures of literature. An immensely gifted writer, a rake, a debauchee, a spy, a rough neck, a ruffian, an innovator and subversive man  and many other things. The book is atmospheric and evocative, you see the streets of London, the intrigue, the danger of a city afflicted by the plague, the violence of the times. Any sign of not following the Church, not being loyal to the Queen, being a homosexual were highly dangerous.

We know Marlowe escaped the dungeon but only to face death through an unknown enemy. His murder has never been solved and to this day there are many speculations.

I think I start to realize what type of historical novels I like. I like it when a writer manages to give a voice to historical figures, makes them come alive, imagines how they thought and felt.

One thing that has been criticized is that she didn’t depict a fear-ridden Marlowe although he knew he was going to be killed. I think from what I know of the man, he wasn’t too anxious, he threw himself into life until his last moment. He would have gladly gone on living, writing more plays but if this wasn’t to be, then it wasn’t. As simple as that.

The best about the book is that it sparked my imagination. I’m in the mood to read Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, The Great and Doctor Faustus which influenced Goethe and Thomas Mann and I would also be interested in reading about him.

Louise Welsh based her book to a large part on Charles Nicholl’s The Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe but David Rigg’s The World of Christopher Marlowe sounds equally interesting.

Has anyone read any of these or other books about Tudor England?

What Did the Victorian Lady Look Like? or Women, History and Make-up

I like to read make-up artist Lisa Eldrige’s blog and also like to watch her tutorials. Recently I discovered two videos she did with historian Madeleine Marsh, the author of the book Compacts and Cosmetics: Beauty from Victorian Times to the Present Day. The book focuses not only on cosmetics but also on women’s history, their lives, the politics, culture and social circumstances of the times. The videos Lisa Eldrige did are so interesting and fascinating that I thought I’ll add them here. They are really worth watching, especially for those who love historical novels or novels from the Victorian and later eras.

As Madeleine Marsh says : “Vintage make-up is history that you can hold, smell and you can touch and I really think it makes our past come to life.”  (Madeleine Marsh in video I)

Both videos are great and will tell you a lot about the link between history and make-up. Did the Victorians use make-up? What did the Flapper look like? What was used during WWII? How did the 70s change the way we look?

I love these two videos, they are informative, fun and colorful and I hope you will like them too.

Carol Ann Lee: The Winter of the World (2007) Literature and War Readalong April

Journalist Alex Dyer made his name covering the bloody horrors of the European trenches. Yet even after the Great War is over, he cannot shake the guilt he feels for not serving on the front lines like his dearest childhood friend, Ted Eden. Worse still, Alex cannot put to rest the emotions that gnaw at him from the inside: his feelings for Clare, Ted’s wife—a woman they both have loved more than life itself. 

Carol Ann Lee’s The Winter of the World is the last novel on WWI in this read along. For the next one we will be moving on to WWII.

This wasn’t the easiest review to write as I am in two minds about this novel. There are parts in it that are so haunting and powerful but then again there were others were I was just rolling my eyes thinking “get on with it”.  Still it would be unfair to write a totally negative review because the good parts are among the best on WWI I’ve ever read.

Alex and Ted are childhood friends. They are close and attached to each other until the day Ted introduces Alex to his soon-to-be wife Clare. Very unfortunately this is a love at first sight moment for Alex and Clare. They try to fight it but, as we will see soon enough, the more the story advances, the less likely it is that they will succeed.

The marriage takes place just when the war breaks out. Ted will enlist, Alex will participate as a war correspondent and Clare will be one of the nurses in France.

The novel moves back and forth between Alex’s and Clare’s point of view. Alex sees a lot of atrocities and the descriptions are very graphic and extremely impressive without falling into the trap of being too clichéd. But since Alex isn’t fighting, it stays an outsider’s perspective. Clare’s point of view was captivating for totally different reasons. As a war nurse she has to deal with indescribable wounds and suffering. The abundance of facial wounds seems to be a trait of WWI and these parts reminded me of one of the best WWI movies I have ever seen, La chambre des officiers aka The officer’s chamber based on the eponymous novel by Marc Dugain. We seem to get an insider’s view of this truly harrowing aspect of the “Great war”. I can hardly imagine what it must have been like to have been the victim of this kind of facial mutilation and to be rejected by those you loved and who once loved you. The reactions of the relatives and fiancées were often brutal. Through Clare’s eyes we also get an equally close look at what mustard gas did to those who became its victims and how they suffocated or drowned slowly.

The only men more popular than I was were the ones in wheelchairs, or those with empty sleeves pinned against their chest. Everyone wanted to talk to them, to do something for them. Children presented them with flags and in the railway stations they got free tea or coffee. It was different for the ones whose faces had been destroyed. People averted their eyes quickly, the blood flooding their skin. No one wanted to make eye contact with a disfigured soldier; they were modern-day lepers.

While the war moves on – not stopping at Christmas, as was expected – the love affair develops as well. Clare and Alex meet secretly but are finally driven apart by conflicting emotions and wishes. Alex feels he needs to tell Ted everything, while Clare wants to protect him and keep the affair secret.

Through Alex’ voice we hear what it must have been like to cover this war as a correspondent. The journalists were not allowed to tell the truth. The numbers of casualties were not mentioned nor were the biggest defeats spoken of. While Clare’s parts rather focus on individuals, Alex’ parts illustrate the enormity of the losses. He evokes the incredible amount of wounded, disfigured and killed soldiers. At moments I had the feeling of seeing all these dead men standing in one huge row before my inner eye. When we visit those cemeteries we get a feeling for those massive losses.

He imagined a thin line linking the cemeteries along the old Western Front, from the smallest graveyards hidden away within woods to those huge, silent cities on the plains where the most ferocious battles had been fought. Some bore the names given to them by the soldiers themselves – Owl Trench, Caterpillar Valley, Crucifix Corner – while others were named after the battalion who had buried their own men there. He imagined how tha line would look from the air; so thick in parts that it resembled a child’s scribble, for they were everywhere these Gardens of Stone.

The novel slowly moves towards the culminating point which is the burial of the “unknown warrior”. The name is chose deliberately as “warrior” sounded more inclusive than “soldier”. The grave which is really located in Westminster Abbey was meant to commemorate all the dead fighters of this war, not only the infantry men. The burial is one of the best and most powerful parts in this novel.

Despite all these impressive elements, I had my problems, as I said. The biggest part of the story is told by Alex. He tells Lombardi, a guy he meets in Flanders after the war, why he is so tormented, why he cannot get over the war. I didn’t get this narrative device at all.  I would have preferred a more straightforward story, not this artificial telling of what happened to someone who has nothing to do with it. This was a common technique in 19th century novels but I think it doesn’t add anything to a modern novel at all. The next biggest negative aspect was the coincidence. I found it highly unlikely that Alex would meet Ted at the end. The third thing that I didn’t think well-done is the love-triangle. I think it was unnecessary that Alex and Clare had an affair. The descriptions of Alex’ feelings worked very well for me but not those of Clare. And the guilt-theme was just an element too much. Last but not least I missed Ted’s point of view.

I have a lot of questions at the end of this novel and would be curious to know what others thought.

Was this really the tone of a WWI novel? Especially the love-affair seemed very WWII to me but maybe that impression stems from the similarity to Pearl Harbor.

What about the facial wounds, does anyone know whether this was a consequence of the trenches? In The officer’s chambers, the young officer loses half of his face on the battle field, but I have really never heard so much about this type of injury from any other war.

Why do you think Carol Ann Lee left out Ted’s point of view? I think she might have risked to fall into the trap of cliché but I am not sure that’s why she chose to leave it out.

I’m really curious to read your thoughts.

Here are other reviews

Anna (Diary of an Eccentric)

Danielle (A Work in Progress)

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The Winter of the World was the fourth book in the Literature and War Readalong. The next one will be Shusaku Endo’s The Sea and Poison aka Umi to dokuyaku. Discussion starts on Friday May 27, 2011 .

Sarah Blake: The Postmistress (2010)

The wireless crackles with news of blitzed-out London and of the war that courses through Europe, leaving destruction in its wake. Listening intently on the other side of the Atlantic, newly-wed Emma considers the fragility of her peaceful married life as America edges closer to the brink of war. As the reporter’s distant voice fills the room, she sits convincing herself that the sleepy town of Franklin must be far beyond the war’s reach. But the life of American journalist Frankie, whose voice seems so remote, will soon be deeply entangled with her own. With the delivery of a letter into the hands of postmistress Iris, the fates of these three women become irrevocably linked. But while it remains unopened, can Iris keep its truth at bay?

I wanted to like The Postmistress and for 200 pages I really did. It has a cinematic quality to it, the descriptions are so perfect, you think you are watching a movie. A movie like Pearl Harbor, not The Draughtsman’s Contract, that’s for sure, but still, it’s an achievement. Also the story is really interesting for far more than two thirds of the book and then it sadly collapses. What starts out as an entertaining and very well-researched read becomes slightly insipid.

The Postmistress interweaves the lives of three very different American women. Frankie Bard, a war reporter, Emma Fitch, the young wife of a doctor and Iris James, the postmaster (she insists on calling herself “postmaster” and I never really got the title).

The story that is told in the book takes place in 1941. During the first two thirds of the book, Frankie is in war-torn Europe, reporting live on the radio, during the Blitz and later from different cities in France. Emma and Iris live both, in the fictional small town Franklin in Massachusetts and hear Frankie’s broadcasts that brings the war into their living rooms. They feel Frankie’s engagement, they live the tragedy with her. They are so far away if it wasn’t for Frankie the war would seem almost unreal.  Apart from Harry Vale, Iris’ fiancé, no one in Franklin, Massachusetts thinks that America will ever go to war, even though the draft has started.

The plot starts to get silly when Emma’s husband decides to go and help in London. He seeks atonement for a “medical accident” for which he feels responsible.

The second third of the book shows Frankie travelling with various trains from Germany to Portugal to interview refugees on the trains. She collects the stories on disks and those voices will later be listened to – thanks to a huge story-twist – in Franklin.

The central story is the one part of the book that I didn’t like and this is unlucky because it ties the three parts together. The idea was to tell the story of a letter that is not delivered because the postmistress decides to hold it back.

Something else that didn’t quite work for me is due to the handling of the characters. Although all three women get their equal share at the beginning, it becomes ultimately Frankie’s story. The other two seem to be mere vehicles to make the plot work.

Sarah Blake writes in her after-word that Frankie couldn’t have had access to a portable disk recorder at that time. What she uses came into usage in 1944 and enabled live-recording from the battlefields.

I took liberty with the date because World War II was the first war that was brought into people’s living rooms by radio, and I wanted to highlight the power of the voice to convey the untellable, the refugees speaking into an air into which they will vanish.

Sarah Blake studied a lot of books on female war reporters, Martha Gellhorn and many other books on WWII. The themes are decidedly interesting and it is no wonder the book has A Reader’s Guide and Discussion Questions. An ideal choice for a book club I presume. Occasionally I wonder if these Reader Guides are not meant to justify the book and ultimately to sell it. It strikes me that I see this more in more in books, even in so-called American literary fiction.

The history of female war reporters and the evolution of reporting is interesting. I think the book also captures very well how far away the war seemed to the Americans. It looks at the way people go on about their lives while in another part of the world people go through terrible things. This seemed very timely and I was reminded of the situation in Japan. We are here and safe while people in another country fight for their survival. How do we go on living as if nothing was happening?

If you are still curious, here is The book’s homepage where you can read the first chapter.