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Irish At War: Poetic Prose In 'A Long Long Way'

Every once in a while, I read a sentence or paragraph in a book that is so lyrical, so well-crafted — so shockingly perfect — that I have to stop reading and take a short break. I'll blink a few times, and then read the words again.

This happened to me on page after page of Sebastian Barry's heartbreaking World War I novel, A Long Long Way.

A few years ago, my wife and I met Sebastian, a playwright and novelist from Wicklow, Ireland, when we were invited to a weeklong writers' festival in Brisbane, Australia. He was there to talk about his novel chronicling the travails of the Irish — in particular, young Irish soldiers fighting for the British king — during World War I.

We had dinner with Sebastian the night before his talk, and he was ruminating about what to say. He said he didn't want to do the standard book talk; he wanted to make the audience feel something, he wanted to leave an impression.

The next morning, we took seats near the front of the tent, eager to see what Sebastian had decided. A few moments later, he stepped up to the mike. The large audience grew quiet, and Sebastian began to sing "It's a Long Way to Tipperary."

It's a sad song to begin with, about soldiers who must travel far from home, perhaps never to return. And Sebastian sang it sad and slow, in a wavering voice filled with all the emotion he had put into his novel.

No one moved or made a sound. People all around us began to sniffle and cry. Sebastian definitely made an impression.

The truth is, his prose sings, too.

I began reading It's A Long Long Way on the plane ride home from Australia. It's about a young man named Willie Dunne who leaves Dublin in 1914 to fight for the Allies. Stationed on the western front, Willie encounters all the horrors and heartbreaks and madness of that hellish war.

Then, in 1916, an uprising against the British in Ireland changes Irish politics forever. Suddenly, it is a disgrace to be fighting for the King of England.

But Willie Dunne is still in the trenches of France — risking his life, losing his innocence, facing the most unspeakable horrors imaginable — only to be considered a traitor back home.

The story of the Irish during World War I was not a subject I had ever been interested in. But I was completely gripped by Willie's story, that of his fellow soldiers, his family and all the turmoil back home. I knew I was reading something exceptional. Every page of the book manages to portray savage ugliness next to shimmering beauty, in language that made me stop and blink again and again.

I've been buying A Long Long Way for friends and recommending it to everyone I know. I think my son Matt summed it up nicely. Matt is a music producer and sound designer. After he read the book, he called me and said, "It's not like reading a novel. There's music on every page."

You Must Read This is edited and produced by Ellen Silva.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

R.L. Stine