It is a measure of our distraction that Sebastian Barry — one of the best writers in the English language — is not better known in this country. His soul-wrenching narratives and incantatory prose rival those of British novelists who are far more famous on these shores: Ian McEwan, Hilary Mantel, Kazuo Ishiguro. But whereas those artists write about twists and turns in what we might consider the familiar, Barry plunges us headlong into the realm of the strange. His dark Irish tales of discarded souls are powerful canvases of the human spirit and models of the storyteller’s art.
Perhaps it’s because Barry began as a poet and playwright that his sentences are lapidary, his dialogue unerring. But his novels are also a sprawling web of related stories, most of them centering on his mother’s hometown of Sligo and all of them seemingly plucked from his family tree. Taking center stage in his new novel, “The Temporary Gentleman,” for instance, are Jack and Mai, characters from a 1998 play, “Our Lady of Sligo.” Roseanne, the madwoman of his memorable novel “The Secret Scripture,” makes an appearance here, too. Even the eponymous, wandering hero of “The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty” streels in as casually as any cousin at a spirited Irish reunion. Grace and disgrace can attach to any family, as Barry well knows, and there is ample evidence of both in his own. “As our ancestors hide in our DNA,” he says, “so do their stories.” His brilliance is that we, too, feel part of that intimate circle.
“The Temporary Gentleman” is Jack McNulty, an Irishman whose commission in the British army makes him an officer and a gentleman only for the duration of World War II. It is 1957, the war is long over, his wife is dead, his daughters are grown, and he is sitting in Accra, Ghana, a shadow of his former self “after many comings and goings.” His only goal now is to set down in writing the harrowing story of his past. But it’s not the ravages of war, his work in a bomb disposal unit, or even the gunrunning in Africa that has played havoc with his soul. It is the gnawing guilt about his wife, the pernicious worm of memory, a “creature that gets into the apple barrel, climbs in all unseen, and by the time your ship reaches Madagascar and the provisioner opens the barrel, there is not one apple left integral and whole.”
Jack’s wife, Mai, was the breathtaking beauty of Sligo, a woman whose very memory dizzies him. “Her black eyes, her hair as black as worry. Her skin which I believe could be called olive-coloured, but so soft it made me wild to touch it.” Young Mai could have given Lillian Gish a good run for her money. She is willful, opinionated, clever, musically gifted, with an elan vital that is irrepressible. “Her friends were the new girls of the century, who had come into the university on fearless feet, and who swished up and down the paths of the college with the confidence of Cortez and Magellan.” Whereas Jack’s family is common — his father a fiddler in a band, his mother racked by fears of illegitimacy — Mai’s is rich, flourishing, successful. Her beloved Grattan House, “weighted down by the accumulated bullion of her father’s life,” is the Irish equivalent of living in clover, and when Mai first brings Jack into it, Mr. Kirwan is not impressed. “The buveur of Sligo,” he calls the impetuous, hard-drinking young Jack, and bans him from his threshold.
But life goes on. Or, in Mr. Kirwan’s case, it doesn’t. The sudden, unanticipated death of the paterfamilias allows Jack to win Mai’s hand. On a fine but overcast spring day in 1926, they are married. “The rainy light, shouldering into the porch from the great door, seemed the light of goodness and promise.” But no sooner have they signed the wedding register than Mai is running into the sheeting rain, her dress clinging to her fragile frame. Jack dashes after, into the deluge, down the muddy street, over the bridge, and when he finally finds her, she is slumped against the door of Grattan House, one hand desperately clutching the handle. It is the first sign of her imbalance. In time, there will be others.
The following year, Jack, who is a newly minted civil engineer, applies to London’s Foreign Office for work overseas. The man who interviews him is surpassingly pleased by his mediocrity. “The best sort of man for the colonies was not your first-class honours man, all push and polish, but a resourceful, second-class sort.” Jack is offered a post in Africa’s Gold Coast, in the place world-weary expats call “the Whiteman’s Grave.”
Mai takes to Africa with all the passion of a pioneer. “Nothing so confining, you might think, as to be one of only three white women for a thousand miles, in the great, weather-afflicted, unwalkable spaces of West Africa. But no, she liked that.” She throws herself into the business of learning obstetrics and teaching the natives about childhood fevers. She charms the local tribes. Falling in with her cohort — two old-hand, colonial wives who love drink as much as any man does — Mai remains a staunch teetotaler. What besots is the colonial life. “She liked me in my white uniforms,” Jack remembers, “she liked the mud-walled bungalow with its big rooms, she liked the order of things, what she called the Britishness, and the deference shown to her by everyone. She put her old politics aside, and looked about her, in a widened and interested way.”
But all that is cut short when, in 1929, Mai becomes pregnant and is obliged to go home. She returns to Ireland with a monkey in tow. Walking down Sligo’s streets, drinking tea at the Cafe Cairo, decked out in a Gibraltar coat with the monkey swaying gently on her shoulder, she is an expectant mother at the turn of the decade, when the world itself is pregnant with change.
Cutting back and forth in time, alternating between the life of a young engineer and that of the old man who is telling it, comes the rest of this tragic tale, which drives on with the force of a rockslide. There is Jack’s return to Ireland. There is drink, drink and more drink. There are two beautiful girl children and the rumor that one may be in peril at the hands of her parent. There are betrayals and secrets. There is a spooling madness. And then one night, Mai leans in and whispers that she is not well at all. “That there was a terror in her, a terror she did not know the name of. That it scampered through her veins like a rat and took away from her every semblance of peace or enjoyment. That her head, her very head, was heavy with pain, as if it were a pail of poison. And then after a few more gins, slowly slowly it all became my fault, and in the deep of the night she threw the old wall clock at my head, and then she threw the cat, having nothing else at hand, and I drank till I was dizzy.” Then comes a brutal war. At home, and abroad.
Jack is no innocent in this. You wonder, as he types all the evidence in a frenzy, always in love with his beautiful Mai, whether there can possibly be a worse husband. We are reading, after all, the confessed “history of a bad man.”
But there is so much grace in the telling: the face of a child, with “one of those wintry smiles that little boys specialise in.” Or the mother, “quiet, as if grief had sewn her mouth with a cruel stitch.” The writing alone makes us cleave to this searing narrative.
“The wolf is always in the dog, and the briar in the rose,” Barry tells us, and, sure enough, human flaws are what drive this story. For all his love for Mai, Jack cannot help but be a temporary gentleman. For all his love of Sligo, he cannot shuck the irresistible pull of Africa. Hic amor, haec patria est.
The novel is a long lament, as heartbreaking as an Irish ballad. Alas, alas oh! But the words are what you hang on to. As Kipling knew, one must stay buoyant on a very dark sea.
Arana, author of “American Chica,” “The Writing Life,” and “Bolivar: American Liberator,” is former editor in chief of Book World. She is also a writer at large for The Washington Post.
Ron Charles will be back next week.
THE TEMPORARY GENTLEMAN
By Sebastian Barry
Viking. 310 pp. $26.95