To be honest, A Long Long Way wasn’t really my “type” of book. I’m not big into books about the war, with the exception of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. That being said, A Long Long Way impressed me in several ways especially its use of language and narrative structure.
Set during World War I, the novel tells the story of a young Irish soldier Willie Dunne and his experiences throughout the war. The fact that Willie is Irish becomes quite important because though Willie is fighting for Britain, Ireland is at the same time fighting for independence. This causes questions for Willie not only about his role as a soldier, but his very identity as a citizen.
Sebastian Barry, though he writes viciously, frankly, and truthfully, he still manages to maintain a harsh, but resilient beauty in his writing. The crisp clarity combined with unique yet effective word choices makes some of the most horrific scenes readable without stripping them of poignancy. Barry also splits the book into very short chapters inserting many page breaks, allowing the reader to take a break if needed, but to reflect on each episode separately.
I had the pleasure of seeing Mr. Barry Speak at St. Andrews where he read an excerpt of A Long Long Way. He was a fantastic reader. If Sebastian Barry had not succeeded as a writer, he would certainly have become an actor. His Irish brogue was fantastic as he lent separate voices to each character.
After the reading he entertained questions about the book and about writing in general. I was surprised to learn that the character Willie Dunne is actually based on his great uncle of the same name. Though the character and historical situation is real, many of the events are fictional. Barry said himself he wouldn’t have attempted to write a non-fiction version, “Writers never do for historians; we can’t help but embellish.” I couldn’t agree more Sebastian.