When they came into their trench he felt small enough. The biggest thing there was the roaring of Death and the smallest thing was a man. Bombs not so far off distressed the earth of Belgium, disgorged great heaps of it, and did everything except kill him immediately, as he half expected them to do.
(from A Long Long Way, page 24)
Sebastian Barry’s 2005 novel A Long Long Way centers on Willie Dunne, a young man from Dublin who is just 18 years old when he signs up to fight in World War I at its outbreak in 1914. The son of a policeman, Dunne could not follow in his father’s footsteps because he never grew to the required height of 6 feet, so he sets out to prove himself as a soldier. Before leaving for the trenches in Belgium, Willie meets Gretta and falls in love, but she refuses to marry him until he knows his own mind.
With Gretta, his father, and his three younger sisters never far from his mind, Willie goes off to war. He survives a poison gas attack — something the soldiers had never expected or ever witnessed — by running away, and he soon endures the pain of losing his comrades as hundreds and even thousands of men are wiped out in individual battles.
After enjoying a brief leave in 1916, Willie is on his way back to the front lines when a skirmish erupts in Dublin, and in the uniform of the English army, he is called upon to fight the rebels. At first, he thinks the Germans have invaded, but then he realizes the rebels are his fellow Irishmen. Confused about the politics in his own country and caught between the Great War and the struggle for Irish independence, Willie is not sure where his loyalties lie. He is fighting to save Europe, but his uniform ends up separating him from his fellow countrymen, and his sadness about the executions following the Easter Rising angers his father.
When I finished A Long Long Way, five words came to mind when I though about how to describe this novel: loyalties, confusion, innocence, horror, and loss. Willie certainly is innocent when he first goes off to fight, innocent about politics, war, and even women. He is confused about what’s going on in Ireland, and I can’t say I was any more enlightened than he was given that Barry writes as though the reader already has an understanding of the country’s history. Willie definitely witnesses the horror of combat and knows the emptiness of loss on the battlefield and in his personal life.
Barry creates intriguing secondary characters in Christy Moran, a foul-mouthed but likeable sergeant-major with whom Willie serves, Pete O’Hara, whose story about a Belgian nun is horrifying, and Father Buckley, who put himself in danger to minister to the dying and the dead. Barry also brilliantly describes the gas attacks, from the chaos to the fear. Willie was an endearing and sympathetic character, and I though Barry did a great job making him real in that no matter how many times he faced death, he nearly always peed himself in fear. Even the bravest soldiers are scared, and that comes through in this novel.
However, I wasn’t impressed with Barry’s writing style at the beginning. It took me about five or six chapters to really get involved in the story, and even then I’d come across some descriptions I found to be too much, such as “daybreak like a row of sparkling dinner-knives” (page 105). Moreover, I disliked the ending a great deal, as it felt like Barry backed himself into a corner, didn’t know how to get out, and saw fit to bayonet the unsuspecting reader.
Where A Long Long Way succeeds is in its portrayal of a divided Ireland and the tale of a young man not sure where he fits in. It’s a coming of age story of a soldier who outlives most of his comrades and is an old man by the time he turns 21. Barry doesn’t sugarcoat the hardships of the soldiers in the trenches or the brutal and tragic deaths that many men faced when they went over the top. Willie Dunne indeed travels “a long long way” both in the course of the war and on an internal path toward knowing his own mind. A Long Long Way is an interesting introduction to the battle for Irish independence and a chilling account of the trenches of World War I.
I read A Long Long Way for the Literature and War Readalong hosted by Beauty is a Sleeping Cat.
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