Fiction – hardcover; Faber and Faber; 288 pages; 2014. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
Sebastian Barry has mined both sides of his family’s history for his fiction, and his latest novel, The Temporary Gentleman, is no exception. In this case we meet his grandfather, Jack McNulty, a man with an interesting — and dark — story to tell.
An intimate voice
Written in the form of a memoir, the book details Jack’s rather colourful life. It covers his time as a doltish student who meets and falls in love with the beautiful Mai Kirwan in the west of Ireland through to their rather tumultuous (and sad) marriage. He also relays his experiences as a “temporary gentleman” in the British Army during the Second World War to his later career as an engineer and UN observer, mainly in Africa, where he now resides.
Throughout his tale, Jack’s tone of voice is raw and intimate. You get the impression you are the person to whom he wishes to confess all his past sins. But Jack is not all he seems — and the further you get into the book, the more you realise he’s being slightly economical with the truth.
And yet, despite all his flaws, Jack appears to be a likeable man, genuinely perplexed by the trouble and pain in his life, never quite frank or brave enough to properly confront his demons, all of which makes him such a delicious fictional character to follow.
Rhythm of the prose
As ever with a Sebastian Barry novel, the prose in The Temporary Gentleman is distinctive in its lyricism and musicality. There are sentences here which “sing”, and it’s the rhythm of them that makes reading Barry such a joy. You know when something particularly exciting (or dreadful) is about to happen because there’s a sudden absence of full stops — an entire sentence can span two pages, punctuated by well-spaced commas, so that a kind of breathless quality ensues, one that is only matched by the hammering of the reader’s heartbeat.
And my heart did, indeed, hammer quite a lot while reading this book. And I also found myself becoming quietly shocked by Jack’s behaviour and his inability to take real responsibility for his actions.
In fact, the more I read, the more I wanted to hear Mai’s side of the story, and when I met Barry at his book launch in London and asked if he would ever tell her tale he said he already had — in the 1998 theatre production Our Lady of Sligo.
Readers who are familiar with Barry’s The Secret Scripture are bound to get a new insight into Rose McNultry from this new novel — Rose is Jack’s sister-in-law and she is mentioned in passing several times during the course of The Temporary Gentleman. Similarly, Eneas McNulty, who stars in Barry’s first novel, The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty, is also referenced.
It’s not that you need to have read these books beforehand (I’ve not read the one about Eneas), but they certainly deepen your appreciation for Barry’s skill as a novelist when you notice the connections between family members and their various storylines interleaved across several volumes. It’s an impressive achievement.
If I was to fault anything with the book it is that Jack’s main narrative is regularly interrupted by short interludes describing what he did last night, for instance, or what he plans to do tomorrow. Sometimes these feel a little like a prop (or a crutch), while Barry tries to figure out what to write next. But that’s a truly minor quibble.
On the whole, I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Jack McNulty’s company — even if he turned out to be the bad guy or, as the title makes clear, the temporary gentleman in Barry’s family tree.