on 10 July 2014
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.
Fans of Barry will be aware of some of the referenced characters here especially so if they have read `The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty' or `The Secret Scripture' for example. This widens the tale by taking us on the journey of Jack McNulty - the brother of Eneas. He meets and falls in love with Mai Kirwan whilst studying in Dublin. She is a force of nature but has her own demons to fight. This is the story of their life together and his love for her and the bottle that would cause so much heart ache.
The story takes in his part during World War II and the times and politics of an Ireland almost now forgotten. This is a story of love, life, regret and a chasm full of emotion both stated and hidden.
Sebastian Barry is one of my favourite authors ever but I always have a scintilla of dread when he brings out a new work that he may have lost some of the magic - I am glad to say that it actually seems to grow, if that were possible. This is written in a prose style that makes you feel as if you are actually there; you can picture exactly what is happening in places and feel the emotion at the same time. He can make a tragedy come to brutal life with the intensity of pain and yet write it in such a way that it is filled with a beauty you had not thought possible.
Some of his passages are so well constructed that I find myself having to reread them as I was so mesmerised the first time that I have almost forgotten where I am. This is a rare talent that I feel humbled to be able to read. I don't think I could gush like this about any other author, but may have come close. If you are a fan of Barry then you will not need convincing, if you are new to him then you have a wonderful treat in store.
Irish author Sebastian Barry has returned to the Sligo area of Ireland, in his new novel, "The Temporary Gentleman". Two of his previous novels - which I haven't read yet - are about the McNulty family. "The Temporary Gentleman" is about Jack McNulty and how his great love for both his wife Mai and for drink has helped to ruin her life and left him a wrecked soul living in Ghana.
Jack McNulty is one of the most interesting fictional characters I've come across in a while. Born at the beginning of the 20th century, his life has revolved around Mary (Mai) Kirwan, a physically beautiful but emotionally fragile young woman, who he woos, weds, and then helps destroy. I wondered that if you idolise someone, as Jack did Mai, does that make communicating with that person difficult? Does it make seeing her emotional weaknesses impossible? Do you not want to admit the person you love so dearly has so many flaws: Certainly Jack had very little idea of how fragile Mai was when they courted. Her odd actions on their wedding day would seem to be a precursor of troubled times ahead. Jack was certainly warned by his mother and Mai's closest friend that Mai was "delicate". But warning does not always translate into awareness by the person being warned...
Jack McNulty was able to come and go after they were married. After an early stay in west Africa with Jack, Mai returned to Ireland to give birth to their older daughter. Jack stayed in Africa and then served in the British army in several engineering jobs. He was in Sligo for long periods of time, however, and managed to lose Mai's family home through indebtedness. But was that all Jack's fault? Certainly he had been dipping into the family kitty to pay his own bills and he had mortgaged the house, but many of the bills he was paying were Mai's for clothes and jewelry. Had Jack not loved Mai so much, would he have been able to talk to her about cutting down her spending? Would he have, in turn, cut down his own spending? From those early days, Mai's life was a series of disappointments that she dealt with by retreating into herself and into the bottle.
Part of the story takes place in the 1950's in Accra, Ghana, where Jack has retreated after Mai's death. His life there is certainly troubled, but Jack makes an attempt to understand what went wrong and what part he played, both in the death of a marriage and the death of a career. Jack is a man in great pain, and Sebastian Barry is not shy in pointing out why. "The Temporary Gentleman" is a quiet, yet powerful.
on 19 May 2016
Sebastian Barry, as often he does, brings a lyrical sadness to this tale. I was a bit thrown by the opening sequence, which for me seem to smack of an exercise on creative writing as much as an integral part of the narrative. It is the forerunner to a number of nearly fatal disasters that befall Jack McNulty. But the main theme, the slow deterioration of a marriage and Jack's inability to face the degree to which he is destroying Mai, in spite of his constant protestations of love, is written in Barry's entirely engaging style. It is the voice of the story teller, the weaver of yarns. For me, but not for my wife, that voice that style sometimes intervenes, taking my attention to the manner rather than the content of the story. That said I read The Temporary Gentleman through in a day or so, wanting to turn the pages. There are a number of sub-themes running through the novel. One of these is the nature and impact of colonialism on both the colonised, and the coloniser. All of that is handled very well. Barry is a first class craftsman, ans this work confirms once more that he is a writer of real seriousness, but with that a master of story making.
on 25 August 2016
Every time I pick up a Sebastian Barry novel, I feel that it will have to be something special to out do previous works - this book is SPECIAL! The narrative is just bewitching and therefore the book is one you just don't want to put down.
on 20 September 2014
Every time I read a Sebastian Barry novel I hope that it will be as good as The Secret Scripture. So far I have been disappointed. Although I have still generally enjoyed and had an appreciation for his work it just hasn’t met up.
I’ve put a little note on my goodreads review of this (where I sometimes make a note before I write a full review) which says simply “That was rather… anti climatic…“. Which is true. The whole way through it seemed that something dramatic was promised in the future, in fact it was part of what made me keep wanting to read- to find out what it was. Something happened (in a way) but it was more of a consistent event rather than one dramatic thing, and it was only a the end that I realised that it was what Jack was referring to.
The book had two parts. A story of what was happening now, and a story of Jack looking back at what had happened before. The looking back bit was what made up the bulk of the story, and the most interesting bit, although at times it was rather too brief about events. In a way that was because we only saw things through Jack’s eyes, so when things were happening at home when he was not there we only saw what Jack was told or the snippets of what Jack saw. We didn’t see what was really going on. In a way that was rather frustrating, because some of the most interesting things seemed to come about when Jack wasn’t there, but at the same time it gave us a good insight into what Jack was feeling.
Mai was undoubtedly the most interesting character. It might have been better to see things through her eyes. Jack seemed to have very little real understanding of her. He saw her as a beauty, and as somewhat untouchable- or out of his league. There was a certain disappointment with the way she went from being when he met her as a young woman to being who she was when she was his wife. The two people seemed completely different. It was almost as if she gave up on her dreams in order to be his wife, although I am not sure if it was that so much as the effects that certain events had on her. I would really like to know. That’s one thing which was rather unsatisfying, we could never get any answers when it came to Mai…maybe that will come in a later book- after all there are a lot of books related to the McNaultys already.
“For myself, I could only wonder at her - was this a sort of evil borrowed from alcohol? I didn’t believe that in herself, in her heart and soul, she was a vicious woman. How is it that for some people drinking is a short-term loan on the spirit, but for others a heavy mortgage on the soul? How is it many a drinker becomes gay and light-hearted, but some so darkly morose and rescinded, filleted of every scrap of happiness, that they might beat their child in the snow?”
The Temporary Gentleman is the thirteenth novel by award-winning Irish author, Sebastian Barry, and his fifth work about the McNulty Family. Now in his mid-fifties, civil engineer and former UN observer, Jack McNulty sits in his rented house in Accra, Ghana, writing about his life in an old minute-book of the now-defunct Gold Coast Engineering and Bridge-Building Company, because “there is a lot to be said for writing things down. The fog gets pushed away, and the truth or some semblance of it stands stark and naked, not always a comfortable matter, no”
Now redundant in Ghana, Jack feels he should go back to Sligo, to what remains of his family, whose story he tells, interspersed with snippets of his life in Accra. While he includes his work in bomb disposal, engineering and as a diplomat, and his extended family, the overwhelming bulk of his account concerns the love of his life, the beautiful and popular Mai Kirwan, whom he met when studying engineering at college: “The waterfall of her black hair, the hat like a boat trying to weather it, her eyes dark in the dark carriage, not so much absent as deep, deep as a well, with the water a far coin below of brightness and blackness”
Readers familiar with Barry’s work will appreciate the mention of many characters recognisable from his other works about this family, although some have different names. A bit of background knowledge of the Troubles in Ireland is also helpful, as much of the novel is set against this background. As Jack finally admits his responsibility for certain heart-breaking events of his past, Barry adds another layer to the engrossing McNulty history.
Barry again succinctly comments about the devastating effect that the change of ruling party can have on those whose loyalties were seen to be with the “other” side: “What strange men were about the earth, after this half century of wars. Men who once were true, and their very trueness turned into betrayal, as the pages of history turn in the wind. Men who were vicious and oftentimes ruthless, turned into heroes and patriots. And a hundred shades and mixtures of both”
Readers are once again treated to the wonderful descriptive prose of which Barry is a master: “We could see the coast of Africa lying out along a minutely fidgeting shoreline. The only illuminations were the merry lights of the ship, and the sombre philosophical lights of God above. Otherwise the land ahead was favoured only by darkness, a confident brushstroke of rich, black ink” and “A lark, a single bird with her dowdy plumage, burst up from her cup of sand just in front of me and like a needle flashing in my mother’s hand of old made a long stitch between earth and heaven, with a joyousness that rent my heart” are just two examples. Both beautiful and sad, this is another brilliant read from Sebastian Barry.
More examples of Barry’s gorgeous prose:
“The bay there, so primitive and wide, as if desolate and unknown to mankind, with not a house in view, showed us its army upon army of white horses, their white-plumed heads rearing and tumbling on the fierce beaten colours of the water, strange blues and blacks, as if blue and black could be fire, and thrown from these wild acres, the heaven-ascending spray”
“The desert was a big as Europe. Humanity, local and imperial, milled about the oases, scorning the heat in mysterious displays of intent. Then these would drop away, and the wide, soul-emptying desert begin again, in which the bus was only a loudmouthed intruder”
“The rains, finally. All day there had been a metallic greyness at the edges of the usual egg-blue sky. A few minutes ago the universe gave a shrug, time seemed to step back, then surged forward to catch up, and then the heavens were ripped in a thousand places like a rotten topsail. And a solid water poured down, you might think no creature could breathe in it. It rubbed out every other sound, of insect, bird and animal. The palm trees dipped under it like dancers, their lovely costumes dragged and battered”
“It was a place where she had been happy so many times, as a girl and a young woman, and it seemed she needed a few minutes to allow an echo of that happiness to touch her”
Jack McNulty isn’t a good man. He drinks, he neglects his wife and daughters, and he runs away from his responsibilities. But nor is he a really bad man, and therein lies the core of this book, how an ordinary man can see and experience extraordinary things and somehow come to terms with his mistakes and find some sort of peace. The book opens in 1957 as Jack sits in his house in Accra writing a memoir and looking back on his love for his wife Mai. When the Second World War broke out, Jack immediately enlisted in the British Army and was made a “temporary gentleman”. After the war he continued to serve in Africa and now finds he cannot face going home to Sligo. Guilt for his past actions prevents him. His much-loved dead wife Mai, beautiful and passionate, became a drinker just like Jack. Their life tumbled down around them. Now Jack tries to come to terms with his past actions just as the reader makes his or her judgment about Jack’s life. The past is revealed to the reader in flashbacks as Jack writes his memoir and bit by bit we look back on the past with him.
This is an enormously powerful and moving novel, written with Barry’s trademark lyrical, and, it has to be admitted, rather overblown at times, prose, with a touching central narrative and a group of authentic and realistic characters. There are some excellent set pieces, the book is well-crafted and well-paced and the tension cleverly maintained. This is the third book about the McNulty family (the others being The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty, in which Jack’s brother Eneas is the main protagonist, and The Secret Scripture, in which Jack’s sister-in-law Roseanne is the central character) and the sense of learning more about a whole family adds to the reading pleasure. The personal is interwoven with the historical and political, making the book a multi-layered and absorbing story about a man and his times, and a compelling and melancholy tale of wasted lives and lost love.
on 24 April 2016
My First Sebastian barry book. Great storyteller; of a sad story. Some superfluous characters and coincidences detracted from the whole, meaning it did not get the five stars. Unanimous approval from our book club.
on 4 May 2014
This is a sad novel in many ways chronicling a life full of good intentions and hopes but blighted by self-deception and alcoholism. Jack is a likeable character and at bottom he is aware of his failings. His gift for friendship and charm redeems him and this reader could not help wishing that he could put himself right. The end is a surprise but reflection allows the reader to see that the end was inevitable.