I can't quite believe it is July already, but in a week when, here in the UK, we seem to have been re-living a different Shakespeare play each day (we are currently mid Julius Caesar) it seems like a good idea to pause and think about July 1st 1916.
One hundred years since the Battle of the Somme.
I expect many of us had relatives who were there.
Bookhound's grandad was.
Grandad lived to be over a hundred, proudly receiving his telegram from the Queen...
but like so many who came home he never spoke about his experiences on the battlefields of the Somme and everyone was forbidden to ask. He was a resilient, chipper and wonderfully funny man from Bethnal Green in the East End of London and I'll bet if he had talked about it we would have been spellbound.
I feel sure we have all read books about the Great War that have resonated with us long after we turn the final page and with the arrival this week of an advanced reading copy of a new novel by Sebastian Barry (Days Without End to be published in October 2016 and set in the US in the 1850s) I headed to my Sebastian Barry shelf and picked up A Long Long Way. Then I went rummaging round in the basement of dovegreyreader scribbles for my thoughts on the book which I had written in 2005 and published on here in 2006.
To set the scene... I had been reading the Booker prize long list and things hadn't been going at all well...
My great project was beginning to fall by the wayside until I picked up A Long Long Way by Sebastian Barry.
“Savage WWI detail” said the blurb, trepidation crept in, gas, trenches, rats, bodies, this was going to be dreadful, could I face it?
However quite unexpectedly, what followed was one of the most quietly moving and emotional reading experiences I have had in a very long time and if you only read one book off the Booker list please make it this one.
If you are the mother of sons as I am then prepare to shed a lot of furtive, gentle but angry tears. Mine are twenty-two and twenty and I saw so much of them in the character of nineteen year old Willie Dunne. As WWI erupts in Europe, Willie enlists with the Royal Dublin Fusiliers and heads off via enforced army action against his own countrymen in the Easter Rising in Dublin, to serve for the King of England in the trenches of France.
This is a book replete with defining moments in which to compare Willie with your own sons but there is one moment of seemingly mundane simplicity that stopped me in my tracks .Willie’s mother has died in his childhood and he arrives home on leave from France lice-ridden and filthy. His father hauls out the zinc tub and baths him. For me it was one of those scenes in a book of such heart stopping emotion that you come across only once in a while and never ever forget.
At that moment I understood with crystal clarity and in a way that no other novel I’ve read about this era has conveyed to me (no, not even Birdsong) just how much those families loved their sons, of course as much as we love ours, this was no easy sacrifice for duty, king and country, this was agonising pain and as a reader Barry allowed me to feel it to the core.
Everything else that I’ve read off the shortlist has paled into insignificance in comparison to this book.I have no idea about the criteria that the judges may use in arriving at their final decision but for me, if we are talking about choosing a beautifully written, readable book that for once really enters into an emotional collaboration with the reader then it has to be A Long Long Way by a mile.
In the end my Booker hopes for the book were thwarted, as they were every year until I stopped taking so much notice of it all, but I feel sure you will all have some suggestions of good or essential World War One reading so please do add them in comments...
And if you wanted to share stories of family members who were at the Somme or who fought in the war I feel sure we would all feel honoured to read them...