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When Jack met Mai.,
This review is from: The Temporary Gentleman (Hardcover)
Quite a lot may be gleaned from the title of Sebastian Barry's latest novel i.e. The Temporary Gentleman as it is a pejorative term reserved for somebody who may be classed as a gentleman by virtue of rank for the duration of a war. The narrator of Barry's eighth novel is Jack McNulty, an Irishman from Sligo who enlisted as an engineer with the British during the second world war. While McNulty is somewhat proud of his stint with the British army he is aware that his compatriots would not share his sentiments.
The novel opens with a ship being torpedoed off the African coast during the Second World War; Jack is standing on the deck drinking from a bottle of Scotch.
We then come across McNulty in 1957 in Accra where he is writing his memoirs and being waited on by his "Man Friday" Tom Quaye. Jack's life has been marred by very heavy drinking. He met his future wife, Mai, in 1922 in Galway; she was a trainee teacher and he an engineering student. While Mai is portrayed as unique and beautiful and a dedicated supporter of Michael Collins, she is also fragile and she too turns to drink but in an even more self-destructive fashion than Jack whose own drinking came before his wife and young children. Later on in the book it emerges that before boarding the ship, which is subsequently torpodoed in the opening scenes of the book, Jack had been on leave and even though his wife in Sligo was very eager to see him, he chose to go to the races in Nottingham rather than see his family.
Through Jack's memoirs we follow Jack and Mai's lives as they unfold from the early days of their meeting. We see them travel to the Gold Coast only to return when Mai becomes pregnant with her first child.
Of course the reader is very much aware that Mcnulty may not be the most faithful of narrators and indeed, Barry manages quite skillfully to convey a certain evasiveness in Jack who seems to skim over some episodes in his life and this is enough to cast doubt on some of the events as he recounts them.
This is not the first outing for the Mcnulty clan as the family also featured in The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty and The Secret Scripture.
This is a beautifully written book and while some of the characterisation may tend to the stereotypical, Barry has, in Jack McNulty, created an interesting, very intelligent yet ultimately flawed man. The prose is rich yet concise; The Temporary Gentleman is an intriguing story, ostensibly about war, the aftermath of war and the effects of alcoholism on relationships and families but it is also about love albeit selfish, yet nevertheless enduring, love.
This novel is heartbreaking and perhaps there is a certain lack of historical certainty but, in my view, it is well worth the effort.