The Temporary Gentleman by Sebastian Barry

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Reviewed by Harriet Devine

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 heaven and earth, with a joyousness that rent my heart.

The Temporary Gentleman is the most tragic, and the most beautiful, novel I have read for a long time. How can something so tragic be at the same time so beautiful? Is there beauty in tragedy? or tragedy in beauty? You can see how Barry himself answered this question here.

But seriously, and here is a novel that demands to be taken seriously, Sebastian Barry – twice Booker shortlisted, winner of innumerable prizes – has definitely done it again. As you’ll know, if you are familiar with his work (and if you’re not, you really ought to be), Barry’s writing draws on his own family history. Stories he heard from his mother are transmuted through his extraordinary and humane imagination into heart-rending and unforgettable life histories. The two Booker near misses, A Long Long Way and The Secret Scripture are possibly his best, but every one of his novels and plays touches a nerve.

In this, his latest novel, Barry returns to the McNulty family, who first appeared in his 1998 book, The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty, and came into view again in 2008 with Roseanne in The Secret Scripture. We now meet Jack McNulty, brother of Eneas and of Tom, the husband of Roseanne. If you’ve read those books, it may add an extra frisson of enjoyment to this one, but if you haven’t, it matters not a jot, as Jack McNulty can stand, if sometimes unsteadily, on his own two feet.

It’s 1957, and Jack is sitting in his lodgings in Accra, Ghana, writing his own story. As he is an Irishman, his commission in the British Army in World War Two was only temporary – he is, indeed, a temporary gentleman. Not that his career has been a failure – he has been a successful engineer, a good soldier and a UN observer, and has travelled the world, constantly trying to better himself. But what haunts him now, and will not let him rest, is the memory of his marriage to beautiful Mai Kirwin. He thinks of her, back in Sligo in the early 1920s – “Mai, dancing there in her youth”.

Her face glistening in the helpful darkness, her eyes all ember and turf-black, her body swirling in her smart dresses, turning and leaping, her legs as strong as a circus performer, lovely firm legs, her delicate hands, her habit of happiness, her radiant and infective joy.

Perhaps such great happiness cannot ever last, and certainly Mai’s does not, for reasons that become slowly clear as the novel proceeds. I don’t want to say too much here, but it’s no secret from the start that Jack blames himself for what happens to her. And none of it for lack of love, because he loves her deeply and enduringly. But Jack is a complicated man, driven by forces he cannot control, which ultimately destroy everything he values and cares for.

Barry’s depiction of the deterioration of the marriage, and of Jack and Mai themselves, is unbearably vivid and almost unbearably sad. So indeed, is the rest of Jack’s story. But the sadness is shot through with moments of such extreme joy that I’m tempted to call the novel uplifting. Take, for example, that lark bursting up into the sky that I quoted at the beginning. This actually takes place in 1942, when Jack is with a unit of engineers in the North African desert. Passing through a nondescript area, they come unexpectedly upon the aftermath of a nameless battle,

shattered creatures of metal that had once been British and German tanks, and here and there in fierce decay the bodies of fallen men, burned out of their vehicles and then killed, and infantry killed as they moved forward.

The living soldiers watch, subdued and silent, and as Jack turns to join them, up leaps that lark. Perhaps you could say that moment of intense joy in the midst of genuine sorrow is emblematic of the whole meaning and feeling of the novel.

So there’s more here than just the story of the marriage, though this of course runs through and gives meaning to everything else that happens to Jack. But, sitting there in Accra, waiting for something that may perhaps be inevitable, Jack muses too on the extraordinary political situation in Ghana, and on the no less extraordinary life of his houseboy, Tom Quaye. Tom, who speaks perfect English with a slight Irish accent, acquired from his teacher, an Irish priest, has been separated from his own wife and family, for reasons which remain wholly mysterious to Jack. But Jack loves Tom – “who I might as well call dear Tom, as I account him a real friend” – and is working and waiting for an opportunity to reunite him with his family. The way this eventually draws to a conclusion is wonderful and fascinating, though it remains mysterious, as indeed does the final outcome of Jack’s life.

I hardly need to say that Sebastian Barry, as well as telling an immensely moving story, writes like an angel. I usually look for quotable passages when I’m going to review a book, but really here, once you start, you feel as if you might as well just keep going and quote the whole thing. Anyway, I’ve probably given you enough of a taste to make you want to read more. Please do. You will not regret it.

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Harriet is one of the Shiny editors. Read her Q&A with Barry here.

Sebastian Barry, The Temporary Gentleman (Faber, 2014), 270 pages.

BUY at Blackwell’s in paperback via our affiliate link (free UK P&P)