AUTHOR: SEBASTIAN BARRY
Details: Book Club read for Dialogues
“In 1914, Willie Dunne, barely eighteen years old, leaves behind Dublin, his family, and the girl he plans to marry in order to enlist in the Allied forces and face the Germans on the Western Front. Once there, he encounters a horror of violence and gore he could not have imagined and sustains his spirit with only the words on the pages from home and the camaraderie of the mud-covered Irish boys who fight and die by his side. Dimly aware of the political tensions that have grown in Ireland in his absence, Willie returns on leave to find a world split and ravaged by forces closer to home. Despite the comfort he finds with his family, he knows he must rejoin his regiment and fight until the end.”
Wow, this was a difficult book to read. I’ve rarely read a book so filled with heartbreak, violence, despair and darkness.
Willie Dunne is a wonderful character; an admirable young man living in Dublin with his father, who is a superintendent with the Dublin Metropolitan Police, and his three sisters. Disappointed not to be tall enough to join the police himself, Willie finds joy in his job as a builder, his loving family, and Gretta, the girl he wants to marry one day. When the First World War breaks out Willie doesn’t hesitate for long and decides to sign up. And that is where the nightmare starts. The optimists who liked to think this would be a short war and an easy victory for England and its allies turned out to be very wrong. While Willie might have feared that he wouldn’t be finished training soon enough to join the fighting, it isn’t long before he finds himself wishing that those fears had come true. Because Flanders in the years from 1914 until 1918 was a living nightmare and young Willie was there for almost all of that time. And we, the readers, get to join Willie Dunne as his youthful optimism is transformed through pessimism into despair.
And the war on the continent is not the only form of upheaval impacting on Willie Dunne’s life. While he is fighting with the British Army in Belgium, the Nationalists rise in Dublin. With those Nationalists seeing the Germans as their allies since the Brits are the enemy, the big question becomes where does that leave Willie and the other Irish volunteers. And since Willie is “a long long way” from home, trying to come to terms with that dilemma is near impossible. By the time the end comes around there is little to nothing left of the happy boy who joined the army. And the one thing that could have made his heavy load a little lighter arrives too late to bring him any comfort.
This is a powerful story of the horrors of war, of values slowly disappearing, of loyalty – to yourself, to each other, to your country, your faith, your ideals – and the loss thereof, of the nightmare that is a war between young men, fighting for ideas they know very little about for all the wrong reasons.
This book reads like a long listing of misery. In fact, even the writing itself at times sounds like the author is compiling a list; sentence after sentence starting with “and then”. It makes a point because four years of pure nightmarish misery is of course exactly what the First World War was, what every war is. It does make this a very difficult book to read though. By the time I reached page 200 I had to start forcing myself to keep on turning the pages.
Don’t get me wrong. Of course I don’t expect a book about war to bring me a happy story. But I have read enough books about war and destruction to recognize this one as particularly bleak. And perhaps that is the sort of story the world should be reading. Because we still have young people going to join conflicts in countries they don’t know anything about for reasons they don’t understand to obey masters who have no idea about the hell they’re sending their youngsters into. All of that still doesn’t mean that I enjoyed reading this book. I’m glad I did, but I don’t think I’ll ever look at this book again. Because some stories, no matter how well written, are just too heart-breaking to read twice:
“Between your own countrymen deriding you for being in the army, and the army deriding you for your own slaughter a man didn’t know what to be thinking. A man’s mind could be roaring out in pain of a sort. The fact that the war didn’t make a jot of sense anymore hardly came into it.”
Or, in the words of the song The Green Fields of France:
But here in this graveyard it's still no mans land
The countless white crosses stand mute in the sand
To man's blind indifference to his fellow man
To a whole generation that were butchered and dammed
Well Will Mc Bride I can’t help wonder why
Do those that lie here know why did they die
And did they believe when they answered the call
Did they really believe that this war would end war
Well the sorrow the suffering the glory the pain
The killing the dying was all done in vain
For young Willy Mc Bride it all happened again
And again,and again,and again,and again