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.