The Temporary Gentleman

By Sebastian Barry

Viking. 310 pp. $26.95

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Reviewed by Frank Wilson


A Sebastian Barry novel is not for your eyes only. It is meant to be listened to as well as read. The tempo and dynamics of the prose shape and propel the narrative.

Consider this sentence: "Her habitual abruptness I could see now was a form of honesty, a species of communication that a person might be well advised to attend to carefully, a Morse signal that needed urgent interpretation."

Read this to yourself as if it were a piece of music you were learning to play, read it till it sounds right. It serves as a leitmotif, encapsulating much of what takes place in the novel. It is the voice of Jack McNulty, telling of the young woman who would become his wife. In his teens, before attending university, where he has met Mai Kirwan, Jack had served as a radio operator in the Merchant Marine.

It is 1957. McNulty is writing an account of his marriage while preparing to return home to Ireland from Ghana. He was there before, during the war, when it was still the Gold Coast, after being rescued when the supply ship he was on was torpedoed. After the war, he worked there for the United Nations. Mai was with him then, until she became pregnant.

Theirs is an ill-starred love match. His father is the tailor for the Sligo Lunatic Asylum and leads a dance band on the side. Her father is an insurance salesman, seemingly well-off, who regards Jack - whom he calls "the buveur [drinker] of Sligo" and soon makes a point of avoiding - as at least a peg beneath his daughter socially.

By the time Jack gets around to penning his memoir, he has been dry for three years, but drink figures largely in his tale, and a slip off the wagon with Tom Quaye, his Ghanaian servant, proves to be more of a problem than he and the reader suspect.

But not an atypical problem. His fondness for drink and the racetrack together reinforced Jack's uncanny knack for poor judgment, which culminates in the loss of something most dear to Mai, whose life then slowly and painfully unravels.

Jack is not your typical unreliable narrator, principally because he comes to realize how unreliable he can be: "Until I began to write everything down I didn't have the slightest notion what it purported to mean. Maybe now when I think I am understanding, I am instead mistaking everything, but at least I am perceiving something in the place of the great fog that has persisted through my life."

He would, he says, "ask God, and if not God, a beneficent-minded angel, for some answer as to why Mai Kirwan had such a fate as hers . . . when to begin with she was so full of promise and laden indeed with gifts."

God and his angel alike are keeping mum, Jack notes, failing to understand that the answer is not for God or angel to reveal, but for Jack to discern. His writing is an examination of conscience, and there can be only one conclusion: "a bell started to toll in me, a deep-voiced bell, tolling me with dreadful but forensic meaning . . . all your fault, tolled the bell, all your fault."

The reader, of course, has figured this out long before.

Lurking in the shadows throughout The Temporary Gentleman - it was only his temporary commission in the British army that gave Jack any pretext of class - is Irish Catholicism's peculiar compound of the pious and the callous, sentimentality and cruelty dwelling cheek by jowl. But that may also be just what enables Jack, after all the sadness and misery he has remembered and recounted, to draw near repentance and have a chance at salvation.

. . . our greatest trouble and our saving grace is that we have a soul. Time may seem like a great flood dragging with it all the debris of the past and catching you at last running through your own fields. Where there was once a great fire may seem only an ember now in the palm of your hand. But that ember is the soul and nothing on earth can rescind it.

This is a wondrously humane book, movingly insightful, what genuine literature is always aiming for but only rarely arrives at.

Frank Wilson is a retired Inquirer books editor. Visit his blog, "Books, Inq. - The Epilogue."