RECENTLY issued as a paperback, having been first published in 2005 and short-listed for the Man Booker Prize, Sebastian Barry’s First World War novel is brilliant in its evocation of the killing fields in Flanders and the tragedy of the protagonist.
Faber & Faber, £8.99
The book tells the story of young Willie Dunne who joined the Royal Dublin Fusiliers and found himself caught between the war in Europe and that waiting to explode at home with the Easter Rising.
Willie’s father, a senior Catholic policeman and old school loyalist, falls out with his son over politics.
Willie, on leave back home during the Easter Rising, spots a rebel collapsing in a doorway. He later expresses sympathy for this young man in a letter to his stern father, sparking hostility.
While the personal familial story is interesting, not to mention Willie’s great love — the tenement-dwelling Gretta — it is the corrosive effects of war that is the concern of this novel.
But it’s much more than just a tale of horror — although there is plenty of that.
It seems odd to attribute the word ‘poetic’ to describe writing about war but Barry’s use of language is superb. Whether it’s blood and gore or something more sinister that is being written about, Barry strikes the right note.
A noxious gas is first seen as “a strange yellow-tinged cloud that had just appeared from nowhere like a sea fog”.
As it begins to envelope the men, it loses all sense of something nebulous and is described as a devastatingly effective tool of war. It’s every man for himself when the poison is unleashed, killing any sense of collegiality the troops sometimes experience.
Barry, caught up in the ugliness of war, could be accused of writing a passage of war porn when an incident of utter depravity is related.
It concerns a Belgian woman, mistaken for a German woman, whose tongue is cut out.
Without going into too much detail, she is then raped by a “vicious lad getting a hold of her in a ditch like a dog”.
The fact that the soldier (Pete O’Hara) telling this story helped to hold down the woman’s shoulders to facilitate the assault, infuriates Willie so much that he seriously punches him in the face.
Willie’s instinctive response comes back to haunt him later when O’Hara betrays him, a terrible betrayal that O’Hara ends up regretting.
Of the Belgian trenches, Barry writes: “There was no star of Bethlehem here, nor wise men, nor kings, only poor Tommies of Irish men, Joe Soaps of backstreets and small lives.”
He goes on to muse if at St Peter’s gate, “did the saint wonder at these sudden hordes advancing on him with their Irish accents from the Four Green Fields to beseech the mercies of heaven?”
God may be dead to these men but the resident priest, Fr Buckley, tells them they are “fighting a holy war, not only in defence of the Catholic peoples of Belgium but to attain a sure and incontestable certificate for the freedom of Ireland... What unites us all is that certainty that God, who sincerely celebrates the goodness of every man, wishes only the best for you.”
This is a licence to kill, the basis of so many wars. It rings hollow amid the carnage.
But Willie is not totally without the bigger picture, that sense of righteousness that must help when war is being waged.
At one point, Willie experiences “something close to a feeling of love, it was love.
The whole line was going on, a whole line of Irish men, he thought, yes, yes, it was magnificent.” Then machine guns start firing again and more Irish men are killed. Willie’s moment of transcendence is short-lived.
Even for people who would not ordinarily read about war, Sebastian Barry’s novel is compelling and oddly humane with a conflicted but likeable main character – and brilliant writing.
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