Sebastian Barry's A Long Long Way is a novel about the First World War, and its basic story will be well-known to anybody who is familiar with this tragic genre. Indeed, when I began reading I wondered if Barry's novel might be redundant, given the myriad classic and not-so-classic treatments of the same subject already available. I need not have worried: A Long Long Way is a beautiful, brutal book, its existence well and truly justified.
For one thing, Barry's prose style, while occasionally overwrought, is brilliant. He unflinchingly details both the mundane and the horrific using vivid figurative language, a kind of poetic realism that is highly effective. Barry's Irish lilt feels intimate and genuine, never showy or contrived. The novel is also neatly structured, echoing the ebb-and-flow of a soldier's life.
Yet Barry's purpose runs deeper than merely detailing life in the trenches. His young Irish hero, Willie Dunne, is seventeen when war breaks out, and largely ignorant of politics. Back home on furlough, Dunne is involved in quelling the 1916 Easter Rebellion, an event which serves as his initiation into the conflict occuring in his own land between nationalists and loyalists. The conflicting loyalties of Dunne and his fellow Irishmen give the novel an undercurrent of tension reminiscent of the class-conflict of another First World War classic, Frederic Manning's The Middle Parts of Fortune.
A Long Long Way is an extremely good novel. It is a harrowing read, at times overwhelming, but also intellectually stimulating and very well written. A shortlist contender.