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.