It might seem as though I’m ordering my posts strangely: I still haven’t written about Ali Smith’s The Accidental, which I finished last week, or even about Dorothy Dunnett’s Queen’s Play which I read a good two weeks ago and yet here I go with Sebastian Barry’s A Long Long Way. I’m under a deadline you see, imposed by the York Public Library system…someone has requested it back from me and I’m mighty fearful of fines (the whole idea of going to the library being that it would save me rather than cost me money). I spent most of Sunday speeding through it, finishing at about 10.40pm, peering at the final pages through an inevitable fog of tears.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the novel is devastatingly and arbitrarily tragic: it’s about the First World War after all. And Barry sets out his agenda in the very first line. His protagonist Willie Dunne “was born in the dying days”, the child of a doomed generation:
“…all those boys of Europe born in those times, and thereabouts those times, Russian, French, Belgian, Serbian, Irish, English, Scottish, Welsh, Italian, Prussian, German, Austrian, Turkish – and Canadian, Australian, American, Zulu, Ghurkha, Cossack, and all the rest – their fate was written in a ferocious chapter of the book of life, certainly. 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 scrap heap of souls, all those million boys in all their humours to be milled by the mill-stones of a coming war.”
Birthed into a rebellious Ireland in 1896, the only son of an Inspector of the Dublin Metropolitan Police – “a dark policeman in dark clothes…perpetually frowning, all six foot six of him” - Willie fully expects to follow his father into the business of law and order. His mother, who loves to hear him sing in his little boy’s clearness “like any woman might”, dies in the act of bringing his youngest sister into the world and so leaves father and son to one another, and to their three little-girl-sister charges: Maud, Annie and little Dolly. But as his father measures him against the fireplace and makes proud little chalk marks, it becomes clear that Willie has gotten stuck. At 5ft 6 inches. He will never make the regulation height for a police recruit and, devastated, becomes a builder’s apprentice instead. In 1912 he meets a girl, Gretta, and falls in love. He is sixteen and she is fourteen. And then the war comes, and Ireland is promised Home Rule in return for service against the Hun; Willie’s father, a staunch loyalist, is infuriated and counters that it is King, Country and Empire that a man should fight for. Barry is quite clear from this point out: there are enemies on the ground and enemies in the mind, ideologies as well as nations are in conflict in A Long Long Way, oftentimes in the psyche of one single man and especially in an Irishman. Still, for Willie Dunne the motivation to enlist is essentially personal, only incidentally buttressed by these political rhetorics:
“Willie had never reached six feet. How proud he was now to go to the recruiting officer who was lodged just outside the castle yard in quite a handy way, and be signed up, his height never in question. For if he could not be a policeman, he could be a soldier.”
He believes instinctually that a man’s duty is to protect his family and his country, however that place, that Ireland, might be defined: he responds to the stirring rhetoric of both Kitchener and John Redmond, the Irish leader with disinterested bravado. Willie Dunne is just another ideological innocent, a truster, a gentle, simple-hearted sort of man. Throughout the novel, as the motivations of Willie’s comrades in signing up are revealed as multifarious - an accident, a marital crisis, a desire for adventure – Barry dittos Willie’s ingenuousness again and again, revealing the fuzzle of confusion under the courageous patina of war-talk. Only one of Willie’s acquaintances joins up with honest ideological convictions, and he wilfully destroys himself in despair all too quickly.
In not much time at all Willie finds himself in Flanders, a private in the 16th Dublin Fusiliers, living that visceral trench nightmare that we must have read a dozen times before but which never fails to horrify – the damp and the mud, the lice and rats, the endless screech of shells, the pall of frenetic danger, the mulched dead. Barry hardly shies from it, rendering savage detail with an eye both tender and unflinching:
“The approach trench was a reeking culvert with a foul carpet of crushed dead. Willie could feel the pulverised flesh still in the destroyed uniforms sucking at his boots. These were creatures gone beyond their own humanity into a severe state that had no place in human doings of the human world. They might be rotting animals thrown out at the back of a slaughterhouse, ready for the pits, urgently so. What lives and names and loves he was walking on he could not know any more; these flattened forms did not leak the whistle tunes and meanings of humanity any more.”
In the course of war Willie inevitably disintegrates, becoming: “a ghost, a person returned from some dark regions, no longer a human person. He felt like just wisps and scraps of a person.” His childlike certainties – about duty, bravery and what constitutes Ireland – “dissolve like sugar in rain” in the face of gruelling experience; he steadily looses the ability to make clear delineations between ally and enemy. When the Irish Rebellion breaks loose in Dublin in 1916 during his furlough leave he can find only pity for the dead and dying of both sides; he wishes they wouldn’t execute the rebels. He sees the waste, the tallies of the dead in the thousands. But even as he looses his own certainties and thinks thoughts in a “different light”, he comes to blows with his stalwart father in letters, their differences apparently damaging their relationship irrevocably.
Certainly, it is a novel of anxieties but not of real tension; the stage is set and the shells are falling, the snipers are sniping and the gas is rolling. Willie is going to die in a moment of pointless sorrow somewhere in the final pages; it isn’t a spoiler, you know it from page 2 and if you’ve read Barry’s previous novel Annie Dunne you know it for certain. In that novel, the childhood reminiscences of Willie’s younger sister, he features only minutely but long enough to make it clear that he is condemned to a corner of Flanders that is “forever Ireland”.
If there is merit in A Long Long Way, and there is, it isn’t in momentum or tension or plot or any such thing, but in character psychology and profiling the devastation of the individual. Equally important are the "little deaths" of Willie’s sacred beliefs and the deterioration of the meaningful in light of meaningless devastation: the standard fare, then, of WWI fiction. The trajectory should be entirely familiar; it follows the story arch of any number of “war stories”: think Wilfred Owen killed in the final weeks before the amnesty. But Barry covers it with a terrifyingly lucid prose, quite unabashedly poetic and portentous. When Willie goes “over the top” into No Man’s Land for the first time, for example, his company:
“…[rise] up like shadows of the dead from their lair at the bulking of the night, a fierce frieze of stars rampant above.”
It really is striking; it knows exactly where to land blows in reader’s soft sensibilities.
Many people know that one of my favourite books is Pat Barker’s Regeneration (the entire trilogy is worthy, but the first is the one I most admire), a novel about WWI that is notable for dealing with the above themes without what can seem like the “sensationalism” of the trenches. Barker explores war psychology in the confines of Craiglockhart hospital, while Barry delves in with both hands, unafraid. Nevertheless, the two books share some vital hypotheses about the limits of humanity and the capacities of men, and both exhibit extraordinary timbres of character, building men and revealing their evolving interiors at the same pace they’re revealed to the men themselves.
I can see quite plainly why the Booker judges placed A Long Long Way on the shortlist last year, and also why it didn’t have a chance of winning. It is quite perfectly formed but, ultimately, unchallenging. Not that it is in any way saccharine, but that it only reaffirms what we already knew about war in ways that have already been pioneered by others. A reading is undoubtedly worthwhile and memorable (dare I say enjoyable?), but hardly life-changing.