Friday, October 28, 2011

A Long Long Way by Sebastian Barry

He was born in the dying days.

And so opens this amazing story of young Willie Dunne.  This may be the most important novel I've ever read; it's certainly one of the best.  Awarding my own 5 measly little stars makes light of the experience, since I still get teary whenever I think about the book.  It doesn't seem fair that I have no one to discuss this book with, so I'm hoping one of you has read it!

It is a book of the Great War: the First World War: a war of horrific scope and tragedy that is often overshadowed by WWII.  This isn't about the entire war, though, it focuses on the Irish boys that fought and died in it.  At the time, Ireland was controlled by England, and internally struggling with opinions about autonomy, which resulted in Easter Rising (see the photo and link below for more info). So Willie Dunne from Dublin, unable to follow his father's footsteps as a policeman because he didn't reach the height requirement, decides to volunteer to fight for England: a decision that becomes quite controversial as time passes.

I don't know about you, but when I think about "war books" I automatically groan inside.  I know from the get-go that there's going to be some rough spots, and dread reading it because I'm afraid it will be all action-movie-gruesome, lacking any introspection or emotional connection.  It was immediately apparent that this wasn't going to be the case with this book.  Here's a great example of the writing, setting the stage on the second page:
Those millions of mothers and their million gallons of mothers' milk, millions of instances of small-talk and baby-talk, beatings and kisses, ganseys and shoes, piled up in history in great ruined heaps, with a loud and broken music, human stories told for nothing, for ashes, for death's amusement, flung on the mighty scrapheap of souls, all those million boys in all their humours to be milled by the mill-stones of a coming war.
Devastation on Sackville Street, Dublin, where it crosses the River Liffey, due to the Easter Rising of 1916
Read some of the history about WWI and Easter Rising @ the guardian
What was surprising to me was how Barry managed to write a book that mostly takes place on the front lines, and yet avoid repetitive boredom.  Not to mention the fact that I'm baffled as to how he survived writing such an emotional journey in the first place.  It really is about so much more than just War, although you will be there like you've never been there before.

The prose was stunning. It ranged from simplistic to poetic, which helped to keep interest high and packed more power in the punch.  The pace and plot were thoughtful and engaging. It alternated from action to introspection with perfect timing and balance, and covered a fair amount of time, yet didn't feel rushed or dreary.  The setting and characters were vivid yet spare. Not overly descriptive, yet strong enough to feel you are there. Familiar, normal people just like those all around us.  Some we know more of, some less.  Some stir compassion, others incite frustration.

Read this when you are in the mood for a deep conversation with a good friend--that's what I felt I'd experienced when I closed the covers.  Read it with an expectation to learn, to grow, to see beauty, to remember, to feel.

A bit of background: I was introduced to Sebastian Barry during my trip to Ireland this year in March.  I went into the Clifden Bookshop to buy Joseph O'Connor's Ghost Light (which I somehow haven't posted about) and asked the bookseller for other Irish author recommendations.  She handed me The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry.  I enjoyed that very much, and picked this one up at the library on a whim.  I'm so glad I did; looking forward to reading Barry's other novels.

Title: A Long Long Way
Author: Sebastian Barry
Pages: 304
Published: Penguin (orig. 2005)
My Rating: 5 stars


  1. You definitely grabbed me with this review. I shy away from "war" stories. I figure that the horrors have been shared more than once so how can they differ with each story? But when done well, they do.

    I added it to my Goodreads list.

  2. This book sounds magnificent and I loved reading your review. The last book I read that affected me like that was Cutting for Stone. When I have the time to take a break from reading for my job, you can be sure that I will add this book by Sebastian Barry to my stack.

  3. Ti, I've just been so impressed with Sebastian Barry's writing. I've read 2 of his novels, and in both he's struck that balance between a good story and poetic writing, leaving me captivated.

    As the Crowe, interesting to hear that Cutting for Stone affected you like that...I never really warmed up to the synopsis & hype, (especially considering the length) but you're making me reconsider. I'll look into it again. :)

  4. I'm heading to Ireland myself this spring and am looking for all that I can read before the trip to steep myself in its history and literature. This sounds like some of both! Thanks for the recommendation!

  5. I wish I had plans to go back to Ireland! I had such a wonderful time there. I think this book would fit perfectly into what you are looking for--it definitely showed some good background on those social tensions. It was weird to think that this book (WWI and Easter Rising) took place only 50 years or so after the Great Famine. What a history.

  6. Wow. This sounds great. It sounds like it has a good amount of history, too.

  7. I love War books and there arent as many based during the first world war so I will be adding this to my wish list.

  8. With only "All Quiet on the Western Front" to my credit as far as World War I books go, I have now added this one to the TBR list. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    I "discovered" a great Irish writer too - a little more than a year ago. It's William Trevor, a "recognized master" of the short story genre. I've posted about a few of his stories on my blog. His writing kind of "quietly blows me away" if that's even possible...


  9. Oh wow, this does sound important. I'm sold! I'd be silly not to put this on my TBR. Thanks for such a great review!

  10. Heidi, I loved the historical aspect of it. It made it all the more real. I'm also thinking that having been to Dublin & knowing the locations they were talking about enhanced my reading experience.

    Jessica, it is hard to find good WWI books and I love that era. I liked William Maxwell's They Came Like Swallows because it dealt with WWI and the Spanish Influenza in the states...and was highly autobiographical. Do you have any WWI favorites?

    Jay, thanks for the recommendation, I've put Trevor on my list. I know exactly what you mean about being quietly blown away. I actually haven't read All Quiet on the Western Front...should probably do that!

    Bethany, I hope you enjoy it, I wish I reading it still! I'll def. reread at some point.

  11. Yes, I groan inwardly when I hear 'war book', too. A couple of years ago I won a copy of Barry's The Secret Scripture fro Dovegreyreader. She said I must promise to read A Long Long Way, too. Earlier this spring I found a cheap copy at a book warehouse, but haven't read it yet.... think I should move it to the top of the pile. What a great review!

  12. JoAnn, I really enjoyed The Secret Scripture too, but A Long Long Way was just so much more. I need to read more by Barry now. :)

  13. Wonderful review. After reading your post I am keen to read this one now too. Compared to The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty, this novel seems to tackle the experience of war more head on. Eneas signs up for both WWI and WWII, but his experiences in the wars form only part of the kaleidoscope of his life.

  14. I have to admit that I didn't love "The Secret Scripture" but your review made me willing to give Mr. Barry another try. Thanks for the suggestion!


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