A Long Long Way by Sebastian Barry

A Long Long Way by Sebastian Barry

Reviewed by L.D.Y.

Hardcover (available in trade), 317 pages, 2005

Rating: 10/10

Reason for Reading: It was on the Booker Prize Shortlist for 2005.

Synopsis: 18-year-old Willie Dunne has settled nicely into his young life – he’s got family he’s close to, he has a wonderful sweetheart, Gretta, who he’s hoping to start a life with together shortly, and while things in 1914 Ireland may not be that great, they’re certainly tolerable. In fact, Willie decides to enlist in the army for several months of training and fighting in order to prove himself a man, especially to his father, a policeman – a career path Willie is frustratingly too short to pursue. But the war doesn’t end, and Willie is destined to fight a long, cruel battle as he struggles to return home again.

Why you should read this book: Barry’s talents – plays and novels – merge to his advantage in A Long Long Way – the plays seem to have given him the talent to visually portray the fast-paced horrors of war, while the novel-writing lends a bit of needed lyricism that adds a bit of depth and meaning (or lack thereof) to the horrors that unfold in front of Willie. It’s a gripping story, with the young, naive Willie trying desperately to understand the carnage and destruction unfolding in front of him. The writing is smooth despite the frequent Irish slang, with crisp descriptions and the thoughtful ponderings of Willie. Barry brutally describes the war and the lives of the young men fighting it, wisely choosing not to infuse every episode with meaning and revelations, because war is a senseless beast, as Willie discovers. A Long Long Way is recommended if you enjoy fiction about war or people dealing with their struggles.

Why you should avoid this book: A Long Long Way is told in bloody and gruesome detail – rapes, murders, death, all told in an unforgiving manner that would have the most jaded person clutching their stomach in revulsion. The real horror isn’t from the blood and guts, though – it’s from the dregs of human nature.

Opening paragraph:

He was born in the dying days.

Fabulous quotes:

‘You won’t hold nothing against that smoke, sir. Best to fall back to the reserve trenches anyhow. There’s something deathly and wrong.’
But before such a sensible conversation could continue, the smoke was slipping down the parapet about a dozen yards ahead, itself like dozens and dozens of slithering fingers, and there was a stench so foul that Willie Dunne gripped his stomach. Joe McNulty came tumbling down from his emplacement, gripping his Mayo throat, like a dog done in by poison meant for rats.

Father Buckley’s face looked as haggard, deeply haggard, as an old, old man’s. If there was ever freshness there it was now historical. Yet Willie didn’t think the man was too much past forty, which was old enough for a soldier – but then, he was not a soldier. His hair under his hat looked like old wire, tangled up, and useless.

Also recommended: Fifth Business by Robertson Davies; Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks; The Master by Colm Toibin; The Lost Garden by Helen Humphreys.

Also by this author: The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty; Annie Dunne; The Water Colourist; Macker’s Garden; Time Out of Mind/Strappado Square; The Engine of Owl-Light.

Fun tidbit: Barry is well-known for his plays, especially The Steward of Christendom.

Would I read more by this author? Yes, but I’ll probably look for future reads rather than his previous novels.

© Lisa Yanaky 2003-2007

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