The Temporary Gentleman, by Sebastian Barry, Faber, RRP£16.99, 268 pages
The protagonist of Sebastian Barry’s new novel, Jack McNulty, is an Irishman from Sligo who held a temporary commission in the British army during the second world war. When the war ends he is “proud, more or less, to have served in the army”, but he knows that such pride is unshared in Ireland, where those whom Jack calls the “stay-at-homes” remain “blank on the subject, or vibrant with contempt”. Jack understands this reaction in every fibre of his body, although he does not share it. His brother Eneas once served in the Royal Irish Constabulary and consequently has spent his life on a blacklist.
Seamus Heaney’s poem “Punishment” describes a similarly “exact/ and tribal, intimate revenge”. In the poem, the death sentence for adultery by a German girl 2,000 years ago is compared with the tarring-and-feathering of girls who consorted with British soldiers during the Troubles. Barry’s fiction is shaped by such revenges. Each of his novels stands alone but they are not separate entities; instead, themes and characters flow from one to another through interconnected stories.
In The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty (1998), Jack was a shining schoolboy, “nominated brilliant by the schoolmasters”, and later, a father in anguish after the death of his son. In this new novel, The Temporary Gentleman, Jack stands in the foreground and the other characters’ familiar faces alter as they are seen through his eyes. His other brother Tom’s girlfriend Roseanne, who in The Secret Scripture (2008) is incarcerated in an asylum, is here still a girl “pretty as a film star”. Eneas is an absence, and the details of his life are blurred because Jack’s focus is on his own history. Barry’s treatment of memory works superbly for readers who are familiar with the earlier novels, because Jack’s forgetfulness contrasts vividly with their own rich, intimate portrayal of these characters.
The question of what can be remembered or recorded about a life is at the core of The Temporary Gentleman. Jack’s memory may be selective but it is also tormenting. It is 1957 and Jack has finished working as a UN observer of Ghanaian independence, and is now staying on to write his memoirs in a small house in Accra. He stays in Ghana even though the local police have warned him to leave – a development that echoes the warning given to Eneas decades earlier.
But Barry’s subtle and layered characterisation avoids any sense of Jack fulfilling a predestined role. Jack is a blunderer, and his life has been shaped by heavy drinking, but he is also a forceful, intelligent man, and these qualities have sustained him through war, a ship’s sinking and a sea of troubles. His alcoholism, like all addictions, dominates his life. Wife and children are nothing to it.
Jack met Mai Kirwan in 1922 when he was a student of engineering in Galway and she a trainee teacher from a solidly bourgeois Galway family. The distinction and beauty of Mai, as depicted by Barry, verge on the stereotypical, but her self-destruction does not. Mai, too, turns to drink, and in one terrible scene Jack comes home from the war to find his wife out in the snowy back garden, thrashing their little daughter.
Mai, as a character, has a monumental quality. Barry constructs the narrative around her so that she is seen from all angles but never known; loveable and yet unable to bear love. Events drag these two towards the darkness, but this is not a story of self-exonerating lament.
Jack is writing his own history, and while clearly he cannot change or forgive his past, he can choose to describe it either in all its grim contradictions or with fine shades of special pleading. In a sense, he tries to become his own novelist, and this seductive ploy is very finely controlled by Barry, who has no intention of letting his character define the narrative and tell us “what really happened”. Jack skates over things and hides things from us. For all his apparent candour and crispness of diction, he can be sly.
The entrancing richness of Barry’s prose is tempered in this novel, and it marks a new range in his work. A more steely spareness enters the writing. The opening chapter is a flashback to Jack’s service during the war. Barry’s description of the torpedoing of Jack’s ship offers a firework-display of imagery but its vital revelation comes in a few offhand words. Before taking the ship, Jack has been on leave but, we discover, rather than visiting his wife and children in Sligo, he has instead gone to the races in Nottingham. Mai is desperate for his presence but Jack chinks the winnings in his pocket contentedly, and stays away.
There is the man. Jack McNulty is one of Sebastian Barry’s most intriguing fictional creations, and he carries this book.
Helen Dunmore is author of ‘The Lie’ (Hutchinson)