A hero to break your heart
Young Willie Dunne is an innocent abroad when he goes to Belgium with the Royal Dublin Fusiliers to play his part in World War I. Like his compatriots, he is a volunteer. Though he finds it hard to say exactly why, he knows he must play his part. Many of his countrymen are there because the politician John Redmond encouraged it - if the Parliament in London had said there would be Home Rule at the end of the war, to fight for Britain was, in effect, to fight for Ireland, or the Ireland that was to be.
Such ideas are a puzzle to Willie, setting out into a savage world oblivious of the nuances of the politics at home. In the trenches, war's privations make that home seem an anchor in a gas mist of uncertainty.
But it's a long way to Tipperary and, while Willie and fellow soldiers seek comfort in their memories, home is altering utterly.
On home leave, Willie confronts the disconcerting reality of that anchor's loss personally, as he argues with his father over his ideas, and politically, as a young man caught up in the 1916 uprising is shot beside him. Home seems as strange as the trenches.
A Long Long Way is a portrait of Willie Dunne as he comes of age and a wrenching evocation of experience on the battlefields of World War I. It is a reminder, too, of the desperate heroism of men who get up and keep moving while among them others fall, horribly wounded.
The relationship between Willie and his father is a touching thread through A Long Long Way.
Raised by his towering policeman father after his mother dies giving birth to his youngest sister, Dolly, Willie is disappointed at never growing tall - he remains stuck around the height of his father's shoulder and, thus denied the possibility of becoming a policeman, turns instead to building which becomes a quiet joy to him before the war intervenes.
His first real secret from his father is his infatuation with Gretta Lawlor whose father had been injured when Willie's father's colleagues tried to douse dissent and, in the process, killed four men. Lawlor's brief reference to this, a business previously unknown to the young man, "sat up in Willie's head like a rat and made a nest for itself there".
Lawlors's provocation - "I don't care what a man thinks as long as he knows his own mind" - sets Willie to begin making his own decisions, a journey which eventually puts him on a collision course with his own father.
The sentence structure of A Long Long Way is Irish: the cadence and mellifluence build like a song. Barry stacks up the similes, sometimes loads a paragraph with several. Somehow this is not cloying; rather its effect is poetic. He caresses with healing words or hollows out the heart as he marches Willie through that strange land.
In the juxtaposition of savagery and tenderness, he breaks the reader's heart.
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