There have been a lot of great novels published about life in modern Ireland. Many focus on the country's passionate fight for independence from Britain, or the brutal land evictions, or the sadness of having to emigrate to a new land. While there is still a great story or two coming out of these times, none really compares in power and vision to Sebastian Barry's works. Through very colorful and detailed descriptions of everyday Irish life, Barry equips his main characters with a heroic determination to make sense of their troubled lives. While politics, religion, and social mores play the traditional roles of trying to hold the individual back, Barry's protagonists have the courage to persist in their search for their true identity. The results of Barry's literary efforts so far are a series of complex and cautionary tales that describe the vast opportunities and uncertainties awaiting those who go it alone. Barry's "The Long Long Way" is just one such example of his ability to make his characters come alive. Young Willie grows up in a Dublin that is still under British Rule as World War I is about to break out. His parents are Anglo-Irish, and his father works for the British government as a high-ranking police officer. Theirs is a comfortable existence that Barry regularly compares with the urban poor of Ireland living close at hand. Young Willie grows up trying to understand where his loyalties should lie in a divided Irish society. Along comes the war, and he joins the Royal Dublin Fusiliers on the side of the British. It is during this protracted turmoil that Willie comes to see war as a brutally destructive and inhumane force that threatens to destroy everything he holds dear: his family, his girl, and Ireland.Read more ›
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50 of 52 people found the following review helpful
"In Flanders Fields," A Booker Nominee About WarSept. 18 2005
H. F. Corbin
- Published on Amazon.com
Willie Dunne, who at seventeen is too short to follow in his father's footsteps and become a Dublin police officer, in 1914 volunteers to fight in the First World War. With beautiful prose that often rises to the level of poetry ("When the snow came it lay over everything in impersonal dislike.") Sebastian Barry weaves Willie's tale. As in every story of war, whether it is the ILIAD or THE RED BADGE OF COURAGE-- the soldiers opine, however, that Dante and Dostoevsky would have written about their plight-- the events are similar: the comraderie of fellow soldiers, the homesickness (much of the fighting takes place in Belgium), the filth, the omnipresent specter of death, the confusion of battle, the desire to live. Even though much of the plot then is predictable, it does not make for a lesser novel. Willie would like to marry and grow old with Gretta. The fighting Irish must believe that God in on their side. They must believe that they will prevail in the end.
In addition to the usual concerns of every soldier, Willie also must confront and resolve his differences with his own father over political tensions in his own country as well as his love and betrayal (his soul is "filleted") of the beautiful Gretta. There are many memorable characters (Willie's sister Dolly, Father Buckley, Sergeant-Major Christy Moran) and scenes here: when Willie sees his first death in battle (of Captain Pasley), when he kills his first German, when he returns to Dublin on leave and his father bathes him, when he visits the empty grave back in Ireland of Captain Pasley.
The horrors of war of course forever change Willie. He figures out that not King George but Death was the "King of England. . . Emperor of all the empires." His comrades try to define victory. "'You put out a crowd of lads on the field, and the other side put out a crowd of lads, and you had musket shot and calvary. . . And when everyone was dead on the other side, you had a victory. A victory, you know? Well, and that's not the same with us, then is it?' said Willie. . . 'And if more of us is left standing, then they might be calling that a sort of victory. . . Some f-----g victory. . . Some f-----g war.'"
Sadly some stories do not change.
33 of 35 people found the following review helpful
Young men, empires, and mustard gasJune 19 2005
- Published on Amazon.com
My first novel by Sebastian Barry and the story had me slowing down to read becuase of the double whammy it packs: a deeply personal look at the young Dubliner Willie Dunne at the time of World War I and the precision of language and imagery. When I have book in my hands that has the double hook of story and language, it means it will be a slow delightful read, even if it leaves my heart in shrapnel-like fragments, as this particular novel does.
The protagonist, Willie Dunne, is trapped in colonized Ireland while the world wages its war. Fighting in another land while his own country remains under the thumb of Britain, Willie's questions haunt him as he tries to battle in the trenches. On leave while at home, family and internal political events turn him even more confused and strain his personal relationships. Barry could not have composed a better story than A Long Long Way, to depict the intense human dilemma of a young man like Willie Dunne.
Irish and Russian writers seem to be able to best locate where things fall apart and how they affect us all. Barry now writes from within that haunting tradition.
31 of 33 people found the following review helpful
sad and trueNov. 6 2005
- Published on Amazon.com
Don't even consider reading this novel unless you can handle extremes of cruelty, blood and guts - and, most of all, sadness; for this is one of the saddest tales I have read in a long time. Young Willie is very amiable but a bit simple... but he has gained some wisdom by the book's tragic end.
Mr Barry depicts the bottom-of-the-barrel place of young Irish Catholics in the hierarchy of Britain's WWI. When this fundamental problem is accentuated by the rejection of his father and girlfriend, the uncomplicated youth senses that his only community is that of his Flanders comrades.
Once you are used to the book's lilting language, it sweeps you up in the mud, guts and body parts that are its sad staffage.
This is an extremely fine book, but is not in any sense an easy read.
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
For King and Country -- but for which?Nov. 26 2008
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There have been many novels set in the trenches in World War I; this is one of the best, almost up there with Sebastian Faulks' BIRDSONG, my personal standard for the genre. What makes A LONG LONG WAY stand out is the sheer quality of its writing, and especially its Irish perspective.
At the time war broke out in 1914, there was a general understanding that Ireland would be granted home rule within a few years. So young men like Willie Dunne, the son of an officer in the Dublin police, joined up to fight for King and Country with the thought of earning England's gratitude and further advancing the cause of freedom. But others had no such trust, and felt that the only solution was to snatch independence by force; their view ultimately prevailed, but split Irish society in the process. When Willie is home on furlough, he finds himself caught up in the Easter Rising of 1916, forced to fire on his own people. Back in the trenches, he becomes more aware of the anti-Irish prejudice of the English officers and the conflicted attitudes of his countrymen. Trying to explain this in a letter to his father, he only succeeds in alienating him. By the end of the book, such concepts as King and Country have been replaced by simpler realities: comradeship, survival, and mud.
For Barry keeps his focus very much at ground level. Willie remains a private throughout, and the author never steps back to take a more exalted view. But the book's realism is offset by a poetry in the writing that befits a countryman of Joyce. He has an extraordinary eye for detail: "Even the leaves of the trees, so fresh the day before, seemed to have gone limp on their natural hinges and twisted about sadly, not making the usual reassuring music of the poplars along the roadside, but a dank, dead, metallic rustling, as if every drop of sap had been replaced with a dreadful poison." The account of the first appearance of the strangely beautiful yellow cloud that precedes this is the first of many magnificent set pieces in the novel. Others include the Easter Rising, a regimental boxing match, several suitably bewildering battles, and the lovely oasis of a visit that Willie pays to the country home of his former captain towards the end of the book.
By the time the War ends, very few of Willie's original regiment are left. Sebastian Barry makes no attempt to suggest that death on such a scale is justified by some higher cause; no writer on the First War can do that with much honesty. But even as he questions notions of patriotism, he does succeed in portraying the War as a personal spiritual journey; the book ends with a quality of acceptance that does at least offer some kind of consolation.
14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
Ambitious meditation on Irish fighting for King vs KaiserJune 22 2005
John L Murphy
- Published on Amazon.com
Barry provides a sort of prequel to "The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty," whose clumsy title masks a powerful narrative of coming of age across the panorama of 20c Irish history and conflicted identities. From what I understand, Barry himself comes from a family similar to those of which he describes in both novels, divided between serving the Crown and rebelling against it, and such tensions permeate also his fine drama.
Willie Dunne's story, as one of the dwindling, by 1918, 16th Royal Dublin Fusiliers, can be emblematic of all those southern Irishmen who fought for what they confusedly supposed would be a cause that would attain not only British victory and the salvation of Belgium against the Hun, but Home Rule for their island nation. While the pace does sag in parts due to the dreariness of the protracted trench life that Willie must endure, Barry labours mightily to keep a light touch upon a heavy subject, and his depictions of the sights that Willie and millions of others saw effectively keep a reader's interest, even if there is not much of a plot other than the boredom of a common soldier for long stretches at a time. In parts that may be a bit confusing for those without knowledge of Irish nationalism, Barry, for the uninitiated, blends the complicated Easter rebellion against the English in 1916, the Ulster contigent, Redmond, and what became known rather inaccurately as the "Sinn Feiners" into his tale of Willie, mostly in the trenches for most of four years, sometimes on leave as short as to a French bordello, longer to field and soldiers' hospitals, and then home to Dublin--once to be summoned as he is going back to Flanders off the ship to fight against his fellow Irishmen in his hometown's streets. His confidant, Fr Buckley, gains exceptional resonance as one who has elected to take on the spiritual and mental burdens alongside the men in the trenches.
The tone of the omniscient style Barry selects, as in "Whereabouts," approaches near-biblical cadences and its sensitivity and literacy jars against the more earthbound nature of the less eloquent Tommie's struggle. Still, Dostoevsky's "The Idiot" is one of the most popular reads shared among the entrenched, and the level of reading that even the average private may have attained makes for a thoughtful observation, given the large number of memoirists, poets, and novelists who reported on this awful four years.
This disjunction, in fact, works effectively to heighten the breach between the longing the inarticulate soul keeps within the most physical and expletive-laden of moments, and the terror and wonder that coincide or juxtapose on the battlefield, when months of pent-up tedium collide with moments of terror. And when the fog of war is man-made as well as natural, all the more cruel become the grey vistas the soldiers slog and gaze across.
Barry's best in descriptions that strain to make new scenes out of all too familiar settings. Out of dozens of examples, here's three: "It was line officers only that knew the drear paintings and the atrocious music of the front line." (146) "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." (171) "The poor lads of the Royal Army Medical Corps, stripped to the waist, hauled down those morsels of humanity away if they were still breathing and gabbing and praying. The remnants were left to decorate the way. Hands, legs, heads, chests, all kicked over to the side of the road, half sunk in the destitute mud. And front ends of horses and horses' heads sunk in with filthy foams of maggots and that violent smell; horses that looked even in death faithful and soft." (231) For comparison, a graphic novel, "Charley's War," about a WWI soldier and his horse, has just been published and would make a fine comparison. A more scholarly counterpart to Willie's letters could be "The Moynihan Brothers in Peace and War 1909-1918," (Irish Academic Press, 2004) in which two Kerrymen exchange correspondence; one brother's service on the front almost exactly overlaps that of Willie Dunne's.
Speaking of books, Barry appends a brief list of the recently growing shelf of books devoted to the long-taboo subject of Irish involvement in the Great War. His research is evident but never overwhelms the limited but representative experience of Willie. Coolies from China, Algerians, Africans join the Europeans and their descendants in this world conflict, and the fruits of such globalisation mobilised for the first time culminate in one of the most poetic and horrifying vignettes I have ever read. Once, summed up in less than ten pages, a yellow day meets a yellow cloud.