“And all those boys of Europe born in those times … their fate was written in a ferocious chapter of the book of life”
A Long Long Way, by Sebastian Barry, is the story of one young man’s experience of the First World War. It is a harrowing and relentless account of close to four years spent in or around the bleak trenches that were dug along the front line of battle, along with the effects of the horrific experiences witnessed and acted upon by those men who managed to survive another day.
The story opens at the end of the nineteenth century when William Dunne was born in the City of Dublin. His family hailed from Wicklow where his grandfather had worked as Steward on an aristocratic estate. His father was a superintendent in the Dublin Metropolitan Police. They were loyal to the King and Ireland as it was then. They accepted the order of things and decried those agitating for Home Rule.
Willie Dunne was expected to follow his father, to become a fine policeman, and disappointed them all when he failed to grow to the requisite six feet in height. By the time he turned seventeen there was a war raging in Europe. Good Catholic families such as his, only living in Belgium, were suffering unimaginably due to the actions of the murderous cowards they knew the Germans to be. If Willy couldn’t join the police force he could become a soldier and fight for King, Country and Empire.
Willie left behind his father, three sisters, and beloved Gretta – a love he had kept secret from his family. He wanted to marry Gretta but she disapproved of his decision to go to the war, refusing to commit until he learned to think for himself. The possibility that they might marry in the future helped keep Willie going through the darkest of many dark days.
There are many, many stories of war written from a variety of angles. This one finds its niche by adding the layer that is Irish history through this turbulent time. While Willie was away the country changed unimaginably. Those fighting for the British king became the enemy. On the battlefields the Irish came to be regarded as untrustworthy.
Willie retains the vestiges of his familial loyalty and his appealing naivety but does start to question what is happening more widely. He must face the fact that his father would regard any change in allegiance as unforgivably traitorous.
The author is a skilled storyteller. Despite the horrors evoked, the language employed is almost poetic. The madness of war, the appalling waste of young lives, is dealt with plainly yet with an understated perceptive elegance. Even when it is necessary to trample over the scattered remains of their physical bodies, the dead are granted dignity.
Alongside many battle scenes there are descriptions of the soldiers’ entertainments. Music and dancing feature. Books and newspapers are shared. I was perplexed that after the horrors of fighting endured, a boxing match was enjoyed. This scene, though, was reminiscent of childhood cruelties described earlier – the stoning of a swan’s nest – how some inexplicably (to me) appear to enjoy watching creatures other than themselves be hurt.
Mostly though the story focuses on the war and Willie’s longing for home. That what had been home is changing in their absence adds a dimension the battle weary perhaps hadn’t considered when they left with grand intentions to protect and return.
A dark and melancholic tale that is tempered by love and hope for a future. An important reminder that war accomplishes little in the long term and is paid for in ruined lives.
A Long Long Way is published by Faber and Faber.