‘A Long Long Way’ by Sebastian Barry

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Fiction – hardcover; Faber and Faber; 304 pages; 2005.

It is 1915 and the Great War has just begun. Ireland, with the promise of Home Rule in its sights, agrees to send its own to fight for the nation.

Seventeen-year-old Willie Dunne, who desperately wants to please his loyalist father, a much respected member of the Dublin Metropolitan Police, joins the Army because at 5ft 6in he is too short to join the force.

But when he came home and told his father, the big, blank, broad face of the policeman wept in the darkness. And then his three sisters, Maud, Annie and Dolly, lit the candles in the sitting-room and they all felt part of the tremendous enterprise because Willie was going to be in it, and they were proud and excited, though it might last a few weeks at most, because the Germans were known to be only murderous cowards.”

Willie’s regiment, the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, is sent to the muddied rat-strewn trenches of Belgium to fight for King and Country. Amid the mayhem, the bullets and the blood, Willie and his fellow soldiers eke out a harrowing existence, clinging to life by the flimsiest of threads.

During a brief sojourn home on some well-earned leave Willie finds himself caught up in the political events of the 1916 Easter Uprising. Troubled by what he sees, he begins to question whether he – and the rest of his regiment – have become the enemy of the Irish rebels. When he mentions these concerns in a letter home his father disowns him.

What follows is a heartbreaking account of one young man’s realisation that there is more to life than pleasing one’s father – and one’s country.

I had tears coursing down my cheeks as I read sections of this book filled as it is with moments of such desperate sadness. To know that Willie had endured so much — the  terror and violence and madness of the trenches — only to return to a country that had undergone a bloody revolution and no longer felt like his was very emotional. Coupled with a melancholy romance with Gretta, his childhood sweetheart, this book is a true “weepy”. But don’t let that put you off.

Sebastian Barry’s writing, so wonderfully lyrical and poignant (not surprising given that he is also a poet), is a joy to read. It is rich with the Dublin vernacular, not just in the quoted speech of the characters, but in the telling of the story itself. This makes the story come truly alive in ways that a more distant, staid narrative would not have achieved.

I adored A Long, Long Way on so many levels: its eloquent conversational prose; its ability to move a sometimes jaded reader; and its themes – the futility of war, Irish politics and how one young man learns to think for himself.

Very much reminiscent of Erich Maria Remarque’s much lauded All Quiet on the Western Front, this book, which was shortlisted for last year’s Man Booker Prize, is a devastating read with a clear, bright ring of truth. I highly recommend it if you wish to read some First World War fiction that has a slightly different slant — that of the Irish soldier caught between two wars.

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10 thoughts on “‘A Long Long Way’ by Sebastian Barry

  1. A culutural question:
    WWI is the Great War in the UK.
    Is there another name WWII in the UK?
    I like reading about WWI; there isn’t too much literature about the topic over in the US. However, there is still a lot about the Civil War or the War between the States from the 1860s.

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  2. Isabel, from my understanding, WWI was known as the Great War at the time (for how were they to know it would become a world war?). It was also called “the war to end all wars”.
    WWII is also known as the Second World War.

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  3. I just had to place an order for it after reading your posts on this book. My wife is going to ban me from your blog when the next credit card bill comes in! 🙂

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  4. I agree with you completely. I read this last summer when it was first longlisted for the Booker. It was by far the best book I read in 2005. I was pleasantly surprised when it was shortlisted. In my opinion, it should have won.

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  5. Sharon, I’m currently reading “The Sea” which did win the prize and I honestly don’t know how the judges work out what should win and what should not. Both these books are wonderful and inspiring in their own individual ways, although I can see that “The Sea” is definitely the more accomplished in terms of narrative but “A Long Long Way” seems more emtionally powerful.

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  6. I thought it was time for me to read Sebastian Barry, and based on your old review of “A Long, Long Way”, this is the book I selected. I’m only on page 19, but already can tell that with Barry, I’m in the hands of a master. He reminds me of Patrick White who I consider the great novelist, poetic and wise about people. What more can you ask of a writer? Ny the way, since fiction never goes out of date, you should have a search engine for your 2005 and 2006 reviews.

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  7. Tony, I used to have a search widget but I wasn’t happy with it. I’ll have a look and see if there is something else worth trying and installing. Stay posted!

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  8. Does anyone know if this is available on ebooks?? Not audio-I have that but am looking to put this on my palm to read when traveling soon. Any help would be appreciate.
    Thanks!

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