In the way that “All Quiet on the Western Front” stands out by portraying the First World War from a German perspective, “A Long Long Way” is distinctive in portraying an Irish viewpoint.
The young hero Willy Dunne is eager to join up as a means of compensating for the short stature which has made it impossible for him to join the Dublin police force, to his father’s all too evident regret. In the trenches, Willy soon experiences the squalor and tedium alternating with the terror of being the continual target of snipers and deadly gas attacks which gradually bring him to a realisation of the futility of war.
The details of the Irish political crisis which was coming to a head at the same time are a little hard to follow without prior knowledge, but the fragmented details probably give a very accurate impression of Willy’s own limited understanding of the situation. About to board a ship at the end of a brief period of leave, Willy is caught up in the Easter Rising of 1916, the civil war which pitted rebel Irishmen against their pro-British compatriots. The sight of a young man, very like himself, dying at his feet on a Dublin street makes a deep impression, but when he tries to express his feelings in a letter home to his fiercely loyalist father, the latter disowns him, unable to empathise with the evolution in attitudes that life at the front has brought about.
By turns lyrical and poetic, or filled with “a touch of the blarney” when the soldiers are joshing in the trenches to keep their spirits up, this is probably the most explicit and visceral, “blow by blow” imagining of a young soldier’s experiences of World War 1 that I have read. It captures Willy’s numbed acceptance of fate: on one hand his vulnerability to being struck down at any moment, on the other his apparent indestructibility as comrades die, often before he has a chance to get to know them properly, to be replaced by others in a seemingly endless cycle.
There is the surreal contrast of the occasional visits home where those closest to him have no inkling of the horror of the trenches. For the most part his girlfriend Gretta serves as a symbol of love and normality for him to cling to in the surreal world of war. Even when his ordeals in the trenches are compounded by unexpected and somewhat unjust rejection on a personal level during his final visit home, all this is offset by one of the most moving and subtle scenes in the book, when Willy bravely makes a point of visiting the family home of Captain Pasley, his first officer in command who sacrificed his life so pointlessly.
There were times when all seemed so bleak and graphic that I questioned whether to read on, but although the end was something of a contrived anticlimax , “A Long, Long Way” is worth reading, particularly if one’s first encounter with a novel of the First World War.