Barry’s prequel to the fine Annie Dunne (2002) turns to WWI for the story of a young Dublin soldier who loses love, crown, country, and family in the war-torn desolation.
Willie Dunne is the older brother of Annie (she was born in 1900), and all might have been very different for them indeed had Willie only grown tall enough to have entered the metropolitan police force. His own stern and principled father was himself Dublin’s chief superintendent of police, looking very much the part from his towering height of six-foot-six, an entire foot above small Willie, only son among four siblings in this motherless family. Since six feet was required for entering the force, Willie was impelled in other directions—and there did happen to be the war (“if he could not be a policeman, he could be a soldier”). And so he ships out for Belgium, leaving behind his beloved Gretta, whom he’d met when she was only 13 (and he 17). Barry is authentic and unflinching as a novelist of the war, neither sparing nor overdramatizing anything as Willie goes under fire, sees death all around him, undergoes his first gas attack, even visits a brothel—an incident, indirectly, that will bring about his loss of Gretta. But politics is what really traps Willie. At the end of a home leave, he and other troops are employed in putting down the Irish nationalists’ Easter 1916 uprising, and, when he sees the nationalists simply shot down, Willie’s own sense of identity with them is awakened. A letter home carries a hint of this feeling, and on Willie’s next leave, his father—conservative, royalist, servant of three monarchs—bans him from his home. Back on the front, Willie no longer has Gretta, is despised by the Irish nationalists for serving England, by the loyalists for sympathizing with the nationalists, and by the English for being Irish. Willie’s end will be alone—and utterly, utterly pointless.
Flawless, honest, humane, moving.