A Long Long Way by Sebastian Barry

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

While revisiting some of my old favorites, I came across this old review I had written for the first book I read by Sebastian Barry. This one is a few years old.

Barry has been on the queue for a while now. A perennial favorite with the Booker judges in the recent past (though he is yet to win the prize), this was his first shortlisted book and delves into the horrors of the men on the front during wartime.

A lot of literature and cinema has been devoted to probably the worst war (though it’s only in explicit numbers that war can be considered relative to each other – else it’s just war) of the last century, World War 2. So much so that sometimes the First World War seems to pale in comparison to the horrors that came after. However, the first big war was also a mind numbing exposition of the futility of conflict with the number of men, young and old, as well as homes and families torn asunder and laid to rest in despondently alarming numbers. It is on this war that Barry focuses his attention on, particularly from the point of view of young Willie Dunne, a volunteer with the Royal Dublin Fusiliers.

Ireland was going through a complicated phase, and it was especially exacerbated for the men who chose to pick up arms and join the British army in the fight against the ‘Huns’ (Germans) as they called them. While on one side they felt they were doing their moral duty to King and country, there was also the internal strife culminating in the 1916 Easter Uprising for Irish Home Rule. The Irish men helping to fight the war were supposed to enable Ireland to achieve Home Rule soon after the war. However, a lot of the Irish could not wait for that or did not plain trust them and picked up arms against the government. Willie Dunne and others like him were caught in conflicted situations where they were jeered upon by their own people who felt they betrayed the cause, while the British seemed to look on them with suspicion. On top that, Willie’s father was a superintendent of police, in charge of keeping the peace against the rebels.

The prose is beautiful, poetic. Barry manages to capture the devastation on the front lines of war and makes the reader wade through the trenches, the muck and dirt, blood and spilt guts along with our young protagonist. We start to connect and care for the young men before we suddenly realize that all is transient. War spares almost no one. Within a split second, the same bodies of complex souls, with all their dreams, aspirations, hopes, love, become reduced to just lifeless pieces of flesh strewn around. There can be no other genre which invokes one to think about the fragility of mortality as this one. Perspective becomes a luxury in these times.

Willie makes the tough choice to leave his family (his father and loving sisters) and his lady love behind and gets lost in the murderous mayhem of the battle, and yet retains most of his sanity. As he takes his comrades to heart and despairs when they succumb one by one to bullets, poisonous gases, mortars, we despair along with him. On a furlough back home, before he leaves, confusion reigns as they are made to act against their own people, the rebels who rose up. Caught between both these wars, Willie wonders at times whose side he should be on. And we wonder at how much more humanity can keep feeding on each other to satisfy the lust and obsession of a few powerful people for domination.

More than the politics, Barry makes us question the futility of it all. And he also makes us realize the importance of partings. A bad word, a misunderstood emotion – and that could be the last chance we had to make up before life takes its course. Willie’s relationships with his father, his sisters, his love, his army mates are all delved into and intricately portrayed and we feel for all these characters.

There is no time like the now. And we might as well live it up. Because mortality is a fleeting pinprick in the vast spread of earthly life. It’s the least we can do to respect the mindless suffering inflicted in the name of country and community.

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