SEBASTIAN BARRY’S latest novel, his eighth (just published in paperback), opens with a bang: the World War II torpedoing of a ship carrying British officers to Africa.
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Many die but whiskey- sipping Jack McNulty — ‘the temporary gentleman’ of the title, one of those whose rank runs out with the cessation of war — survives, at the cost of a few half crowns, to live, fight and ponder another day.
Twelve years later, he washes up in Accra. The Gold Coast has been prized from British grasp and become independent Ghana, and it is here that he settles down, to write his memoirs and to delay a return to Ireland, attended to by the loyal houseboy, Tom Quaye, formerly of the Gold Coast Regiment and a veteran of the Burma horrors, but short-changed, like so many, out of his rightful pension.
There’s a lot to Jack’s story, but at the core of a novel that feels genuinely epic in scope, and yet in some ways also merely a piece of the whole, is a tale of true but tragic love.
His blood comes to wildest life at the recollection of Mai Kirwan, a beauty that he met in 1922, while still an engineering student.
He’d sprung from a poor family, his parents both earned their living making clothes for the local asylum, and Mai seemed far out of his league, but they marry and set out together on an adventurous, and ultimately destructive, life together.
During the war, Jack puts his engineering skills to good use defusing bombs. There’s a stint too, following the fighting, as a UN observer. But at home, his army background is a stain.
The characterisations, especially of our narrator and his whiskey-dented memory but, even more so, of Mai, are remarkable. Barry plays with stereotype, and a kind of expected Irishness echoes through a lot of their behaviour, yet they feel real.
Jack is irresponsible and selfish, too fond of whiskey and gambling, too wild for roots. Mai spends much of her marriage awaiting Jack’s return, and after the stillbirth of their second child sinks into a gin-soaked depression that cannot end well.
While the world these days tends to turn in search of the latest ‘next big thing’, the older guard can often be overlooked, or taken for granted. However, in a career that has endured for more than three decades, Sebastian Barry has been quietly marking his territory as one of Ireland’s most significant literary voices.
The past 10 years in particular have seen him set on a select pedestal, alongside the likes of John Banville, Edna O’Brien and William Trevor, as the best our country has to offer to the world.
Of his recent novels, On Canaan’s Side and A Long, Long Way were both listed for the Booker Prize, as was the book widely considered his masterpiece, The Secret Scripture, which also won the Costa Award, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and the Irish Book Award and which is now undergoing the Hollywood treatment for a big screen release later this year.
The Temporary Gentleman is the latest of the author’s works, following on from The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty and The Secret Scripture, to feature the McNulty brood, which suggests that he is working with a huge canvas, and building a pantheon.
However, this is a stand-alone book, and a thoroughly impressive one, made joyful by its lovely, meandering descriptions, vibrant imagery and always imaginative word choice.
Barry’s innate understanding of narrative, control of time and pacing, and, as much as anything, the iridescent quality of his prose, all combine to elevate this story to something truly special.
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