“It seemed there was more cruelty than joy stored up in the human story, and kindness and comfort only rationed, and the ration book for both indeed not issued to everyone.”
The Temporary Gentleman is the third Sebastian Barry book I’ve read and I was looking forward to it, having loved both The Secret Scripture and On Canaan’s Side. Based on those two novels I knew I could expect a tragic, heartbreaking story and some beautiful, haunting writing – and that’s exactly what I got. Whenever I read a book by Sebastian Barry I am impressed by how much care he gives to each and every sentence, always searching for the perfect word or phrase to use. He can make the most ordinary, mundane things sound poetic and magical.
This is the third, I think, of Barry’s novels to focus on members of the McNulty family. The first, which I haven’t read yet, is The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty and the second is The Secret Scripture, which tells the story of Roseanne, Tom McNulty’s wife. This new book, The Temporary Gentleman, is narrated by Jack McNulty, the brother of Tom and Eneas. They are all standalone novels and I don’t think they need to be read in any particular order, but I do like the fact that they are all loosely connected.
As an Irishman whose commission in the British Army during the Second World War is not permanent, Jack McNulty is the ‘temporary gentleman’ of the title. In 1957, sitting in his lodgings in Accra, Ghana where he lives alone with only his houseboy, Tom Quaye, for company, Jack begins to write his memoirs. He remembers his early days in Ireland and his first meetings with his future wife, Mai Kirwan. He reflects on the reasons why their relationship became strained and their marriage began to disintegrate. And he thinks of the mistakes he has made and the terrible impact of alcohol on both his own life and the lives of his family. Occasionally we return to the present where we learn a little bit about the political situation in 1950s Ghana, but the majority of the novel is devoted to Jack and Mai’s troubled marriage.
This is such a sad story, made even sadder by the fact that Jack does truly love Mai and although he can see that he is ruining his life and hers, he can’t stop himself from doing it. He knows he has made bad decisions and that he is to blame for the tragic outcome of those decisions – and yet he seems incapable of trying to put things right. Jack is not the most pleasant of people but even while I felt frustrated and angry with him, it was still possible to feel a bit of sympathy for him at times. I was also intrigued by Mai’s character, particularly because we only see her through Jack’s eyes and never have a chance to hear her point of view. It would have been interesting to have been able to read the same story from Mai’s perspective – I would love to know how she really felt about Jack and his actions.
As usual with a Sebastian Barry novel, I found that I was constantly marking lines and passages that I loved and as usual, if I started to quote them here I would have to quote almost the whole book. But despite the gorgeous writing I didn’t like this book quite as much as The Secret Scripture or On Canaan’s Side, maybe because Jack causes so many of his problems through his own behaviour and I didn’t feel as desperately sorry for him as I did for Roseanne McNulty or Lilly Dunne. I also felt that the Ghana sections of the novel added very little to the story. Still, this book was worth reading for the beauty of the writing alone. While I’m waiting for Sebastian Barry’s next novel I would like to go back and read his other books on the McNulty and Dunne families that I haven’t read yet.
I received a copy of this book from NetGalley for review.