A bittersweet song
David Robbins on the WWI novel that joins a crowded battlefield
The field of First World War novels is a crowded one -- almost as crowded as the battlefields of the conflict itself. And many of the recent entrants are big howitzers, too: Sebastian Barry, Pat Barker, Sebastian Faulks.
Now a new writer, Dubliner Alan Monaghan, has poked his rifle out of the trench and fired off a volley. And quite a well aimed one it is, too.
Of course, one may well argue that Faulks said all there is to be said about the sappers at the Messines Ridge in 1917 in Birdsong, that Barker explored the psychological legacy of life at the front in The Ghost Road, that Barry dissected the particular moral dilemmas the war posed for the Irish.
Indeed, Barry's book A Long Long Way was such a popular and critical success -- and shortlisted for the Booker Prize, too -- one wonders if there is room for another book on the Irish experience in the Great War so soon.
Yet none of this has stopped Monaghan, a Greenhills man and winner of the Hennessy New Irish Writing Award in 2002, from ploughing on. Apparently, he was two years into writing his book when Barry's was published.
How he must have reeled when he read it, for the similarities between A Long Long Way and The Soldier's Song are striking.
In Barry's book, Willie Dunne joins the Dublin Fusiliers and goes to France to fight, but gradually comes to wonder what he is fighting for.
After the Rising of 1916, he realises the Ireland he had enlisted to preserve was dissolving "like sugar in the rain".
In The Soldier's Song, Stephen Ryan joins, you guessed it, the Dublin Fusiliers.
He sees action in Galipoli, Ypres and Messines, and becomes caught up in the Rising while on leave.
The tragic irony of having to fight for Britain in order to secure independence for Ireland is imaginatively wrought in Barry's book, but Monaghan points it up just as tellingly, if a little less subtly, by having Stephen's brother fight with Connolly during the Rising.
A Long Long Way is beautifully written, full of striking similes and descriptions. There is no doubt that it is a work of art. The Soldier's Song is not high art, but it is craftsmanship of a high order. It is a well-made book, less pretentious in its ambitions, more workmanlike in the way it goes about its business.
The Soldier's Song -- which is part of a planned trilogy set in the1914-1922 period -- tells the story of Ryan, a working-class boy who wins a mathematics scholarship to Trinity College.
When the Great War breaks out, he joins up, partly because he has got into a fight at college and fears his scholarship will not be renewed, and partly to join in the great adventure.
He is consoled during his training at the Curragh and his posting to Ypres by letters from Lillian Bryce, a fellow mathematics student at Trinity over whom he got into those fateful fisticuffs.
Stephen turns out to be a decent soldier and leader of men. He sees action at Galipoli, Ypres and Messines.
In a particularly gripping scene, he shoots a German sniper who had been picking off his men in the trenches.
While on leave during Easter 1916, Stephen becomes caught up in the Rising.
Abandoning plans to go to the races at Fairyhouse, he commands the garrison at Trinity College and witnesses events across the river at the GPO and the Four Courts.
Meanwhile, his bother Joe is busy firing at British troops in Dublin Castle and, when Stephen escorts Lillian to the Castle on that first evening of the Rising, the reader fears brother may fire on brother.
But Monaghan is too subtle a writer for such neat opposition. Both brothers survive, muddling through in a grudgingly respectful antipathy.
The Soldier's Song succeeds because it puts these human relationships -- Stephen and Lillian; the two brothers; Stephen and his college pal Billy -- in the foreground and leaves the history as a backdrop.
Monaghan does tread some well-worn paths: the descriptions of the tunnelling operation to blow up the Messines Ridge owe much to Birdsong, while Stephen's treatment for shellshock is reminiscent of The Ghost Road.
He also suffers from the tendency to bring in every major event of the period.
It is not enough that Lillian is among the first women to attend Trinity College, or that she is a suffragette. Monaghan makes her father an officer of the White Star Line who goes down with the Titanic. But these are small faults in a well-written, rather sensible novel. The other parts of the trilogy will follow the same characters through the War of Independence and the Civil War, and I for one am looking forward to reading them.