Monday, September 8, 2014

War Challenge #18

I read this for the 2014 War Challenge with a Twist at the reading challenge blog War Through the Generations

A Long Long Way – Sebastian  Barry, 2005

Like The Soldier’s Song (Alan Monaghan, 2002), this novel examines an Irishman’s experience in the trenches during WWI and the way in which the war acted as a catalyst in pushing nationalists and unionists further apart. A Catholic from Dublin, Willie Dunne enlists in the King’s army to protect home and family from barbarism, only to find himself fighting the adversary but oppressing his own people during the Easter rising in Dublin in 1916.

When he sees a nationalist murdered on the street during the rising, his own national identity stirs. After his inarticulate expression of this stirring in a letter causes a terrible rift with his father over politics, street boys spit on and stone him, despising him as a “British Tommie.” This calls to mind the scene in The Soldier’s Song when Stephan Ryan is beaten by thugs on a Dublin street because he is wearing a British army great coat. To be beaten by the same people that cheered its soldiers on to war months earlier – it’s irony as tangled and knotty and intractable as you’d find in the Balkans.

Considered one of Ireland's finest writers, Sebastian Barry writes dense prose, in various registers, gentle, tough, peaceful, reverent, harsh but never melodramatic or excessive. For example:

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.

There is occasional overuse of adjectives. As for writerly writing, in one line, I wondered if a “scent” could leave an “echo,” but maybe that’s just me distracting myself.

I still recommend this book to readers who are already familiar with the history. Barry assumes the reader knows the background of the Easter Rising and will recognize conditions to identity the battle since he never gives names of engagements. For Barry, battles are not the focus, its on an individual’s experience, to remind us of the costs and losses and confusions faced by people in the 20th century, when extraordinary choices were presented to ordinary people.

1 comment:

  1. I thought this book was interesting because it brought in the Easter Rising, which I knew nothing about. I do remember the overuse of adjectives, but in the end, it didn't bother me too much.