Monthly Archives: April 2007

One man’s journey: A Long Long Way by Sebastian Barry (2005)

I read this award-winning book last year, but didn’t review it at the time, which was a mistake; it’s a very powerful, lyrically written novel. For those of us who are not Irish, its resonance is diminished somewhat, but I was privileged the other day to hear Barry talk about the book in person while I was in Dublin, and I gained some insight into what it means to Irish people. It is not without controversy, as I heard.

It is the story of Willie Dunne, a young Irish lad from Dublin who volunteers in 1914 and what happens to him during the war. He is in many ways atypical, in that despite being a Catholic, his father is a police inspector, at a time when virtually all those in authority were Protestants. Being Irish, Willie has not only the disassociation that existed between those fighting and those left at home, to deal with, he also has the events of Easter 1916, to cope with. In his case, more so than many, as Barry places him in Dublin at the time.

Unlike other combatant nations in the Great War, Ireland had until recently virtually forgotten those Irishmen who took part as members of the British army, subsequent events leading to them being regarded as traitors, rather than the heroic upholders of civilisation that Great War participants were viewed as in Britain and in the Commonwealth.

By having Willie take part in the suppression of the Easter Uprising, Barry tackles this attitude head on. Willie is seen as increasingly conflicted and alienated as the novel progresses. The presentation of trench life is very well done, covering both the boredom and the terror – Willie pisses himself before every attack, and suffers from the shakes.

At the time that I read it, I hated the way the novel ended – I felt it was clichéd and unoriginal. Barry answered my unspoken question as to why he ended it in the way he did, by describing the play featuring Willie’s father, which he wrote in the early 90s. The seeds of this novel’s conclusion were sown in that play.

You can read an interview with Barry or check out The Observer review.


A haunting read: Footsteps in the Dark by Georgette Heyer (1932)

Another great read from Heyer, a not terribly serious read set in the now familiar locale of a country house. This time it is a gloomy and dilapidated Tudor priory, reputedly haunted to the extent that very few people have set foot in it for years. The protagonists are a jolly bunch – Peter, Margaret and Celia – who have inherited the house from an uncle and who, along with Celia’s husband determine to solve the mystery of the evil monk who stalks its corridors. As well as the investigation of real or faked supernatural goings-on, there is a murder, and the dénouement provides a satisfactory and happy conclusion to the investigation.

While reading this I was reminded of another of Heyer’s novels – one of her Regency romances, The Talisman Ring. This too is set in an isolated country house and has similar supernatural happenings. Like that, this was well written with excellent if somewhat stock characterisation. It is very much of its time – there are lots of allusions to the servant problem, and some of the dialogue is less than pc, but it has the benefit of being funny in places. Don’t pick this up if you are looking for something dark and challenging, but if you want a genuinely entertaining, light read, then this should prove just the ticket.

See also,
Envious Casca

Frozen season: Winter in Madrid by CJ Sansom (2006)

I’ve read all of Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake Tudor novels and thoroughly enjoyed them, but for some reason I wasn’t initially attracted to this straight historical novel, and decided to pass on it, as it wasn’t historical crime, but the library got the audio version in and I decided I might as well listen to it in the car. Had I been missing a treat! Winter in Madrid is a marvellous novel. It’s rich and many layered, displaying a complete familiarity with its period.

It’s set in Madrid (as we can obviously tell from the title) during the early part of the second world war. The only previous acquaintance I have had with Spain in this period was in the marvellous Pan’s Labyrinth, which I saw last year, but going by my previous knowledge of Sansom’s writing, I’m confident he knows his stuff. Sansom gives a wonderful evocation of a shattered city – shattered in both infrastructure and spirit, and captures a brooding sense of hate, fear and hypocrisy that lends the novel much of its tension.

Former Cambridge lecturer Harry Brett has been invalided out of the army after Dunkirk suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. He is recruited by the British government to work undercover in Spain, spying on a former school friend who has some involvement with the Spanish government and some rather unsavoury types. The British are desperate to keep Spain out of the war; Sandy Forsyth could jeopardise this. Harry has a long familiarity with Spain – he travelled there ten years previously with another school friend who subsequently became a communist and died during the Spanish Civil War.

This is not a novel of black and white, but of many shades of grey, and these characters, and others, all reflect this. Harry is not exactly a dashing hero – he has his problems, and Sandy Forsyth, as the ostensible villain, is one of the most interesting characters in the novel. Other characters, such as Harry’s handler at the British embassy, who initially appear as single faceted, ‘good’ characters subsequently appear to have other motives and desires, which makes them appear much less attractive.

I liked the ending – it was not what I expected, but seemed appropriate for the style of novel this is.