Having read and thoroughly enjoyed Sebastian Barry’s work in the past, I purchased the beautiful 2014 edition (Faber & Faber) of The Temporary Gentleman. Another heartrending and emotional read from Sebastian Barry, with a very dark tale at it’s core.
[ About the Book ]
Jack McNulty is a ‘temporary gentleman’, an Irishman whose commission in the British army in the Second World War was never permanent. In 1957, sitting in his lodgings in Accra, he urgently sets out to write his story. He feels he cannot take one step further, or even hardly a breath, without looking back at all that has befallen him.
Jack is an ordinary man, both petty and heroic, but he has seen extraordinary things. He has worked and wandered around the world – as a soldier, an engineer, a UN observer – trying to follow his childhood ambition to better himself. And he has had a strange and tumultuous marriage. Mai Kirwan was a great beauty of Sligo in the 1920s, a vivid mind, but an elusive and mysterious figure too. Jack married her, and shared his life with her, but in time she slipped from his grasp.
[ My Review ]
The Temporary Gentleman is part of a collection of books by Sebastian Barry, entitled The McNulty Family. Each book can be read as a standalone, but has a thread connecting them all to a family, a history, to a different time and place.
Described as ‘a heart-breaking portrait of one man’s life – of his demons and his lost love…..ultimately, a novel about Jack’s last bid for freedom, from the savage realities of the past and from himself,’ The Temporary Gentleman is a melancholic and introspective read.
The Temporary Gentleman opens up with a very dramatic scene on board a naval vessel bound for the Gold Coast of Africa. Jack McNulty is on board, one of many in the British army who are to join forces with the colonial troops after the fall of France to Hitler. As Jack thinks about his recent win at the races and his beautiful wife Mai, a torpedo hits.
‘Suddenly the whole port side of the ship seemed to go up, right in front of my eyes, an enormous gush and geyser of water, a shuddering explosion, an ear-numbing rip of metallic noise, and a vast red cornet of flames the size of the torch on the Statue of Liberty………An iron ladder full of men, from God knows where, maybe from inside the ship, or from the side of the command deck most likely, with about a dozen calling and screaming persons clinging to it like forest monkeys, moved past me as if it were a trolley being wheeled by the demon of this attack, and crossed the ravaged deck, and pitched down into the moiling, dark sea behind…Everything roared for that moment…’
Now, many years later, Jack McNulty remains in Accra in Ghana. It’s 1957, the war is over, but Jack is slow to go home. Having worked as a UN observer, Jack is one of a few now left behind, slow to up sticks, go home and face their new reality. With not much left waiting for him, only memories and heartbreak, Jack decides to put pen to paper and to tell his story. Jack needs atonement for his past. Unable to move on, he needs to look back over the years in an attempt to understand where it all went wrong.
Jack had his life all planned out the second he laid eyes on the enigmatic Mai Kirwan. Mai was from a more stable environment than Jack’s and her parents were never too happy with the manner in which the relationship was moving forward. Jack liked the drop but it was never ‘too much’, just a little to calm the nerves, to get him through a situation or to ease his mind when faced with life’s challenges. Mai was solid, the stable side to their relationship. But as the years passed and Jack’s addictions to gambling and drinking became apparent, their marriage saw many dark days. With the onset of the Second World War, Jack signed up, leaving a very unstable Mai behind. As the years passed Mai faced her own demons and their relationship became bitter and unforgiving as the drink took a hold of them both.
Now in Accra and avoiding the drink, due to a number of very unpleasant events, Jack is trying to be someone better during these years, someone he can finally hope to be proud of, but this challenge was never going to an easy one. With a local Ghanaian manservant as his only companion, Jack’s life is shattered. His daily routines are those of a man on borrowed time. As he looks back over his life and the full realisation of the impact of his actions bears down on him, Jack reflects on what might have been.
Jack McNulty was a dreadful husband, a cruel husband in many ways. His blindness to the dangers he placed in front of Mai, his complete denial of his own personal issues, his lack of acceptance of the problems he had, all combined for a very tragic outcome.
Mai Kirwan was a beauty, a college student when Jack first set his eyes on her. She was a Commerce student and he an Engineering student. It was 1922, the Irish Civil War was raging across the land with some horrendous atrocities witnessed in all corners, but Jack’s only concern was how to get this Galway girl to go out with him, a country boy from Sligo.
‘There she was, the first time I ever saw her, sailing along in her loose black skirts, her lovely face above a long-boned frame, on the cinder path of the university, hidden by tree trunks and then revealed, so that she whirred in my eyes like a film reel…’
Jack McNulty and Mai Kirwan were in love, with a bright future ahead of them. The world was full of hope and possibilities, but fate had something else in mind as their life took a very treacherous turn indeed.
The Temporary Gentleman is a sweeping tale, a family saga, crossing different periods of history and continents. Filled with sorrow, regret, disappointment but also with a longing, it is a book that that affects deeply any who read it. It is a grim tale but unfortunately it also represents the story of many marriages, past and present. It highlights the theme of addiction, in many forms, and the horror it inflicts on families. Jack McNulty is looking for redemption, looking to right many wrongs but is it too late for Jack?
‘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’
Sebastian Barry is a writer with an exquisite penmanship. His ability to tell a tale is remarkable as his words capture an era, a moment with such authenticity and eloquence. The Temporary Gentleman is a very poignant and stirring read, a heart-wrenching study of humanity, a compelling tale of passion and regret.
[ Bio ]
Sebastian Barry was born in Dublin in 1955. His plays include Boss Grady’s Boys (1988), The Steward of Christendom (1995), Our Lady of Sligo (1998) and The Pride of Parnell Street (2007). His novels include The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty (1998), Annie Dunne (2002), A Long Long Way (2005) and The Secret Scripture (2008).
He has won, among other awards, the Irish-America Fund Literary Award, the Christopher Ewart-Biggs Prize, the London Critics Circle Award and the Kerry Group Irish Fiction Prize. A Long Long Way, which was also shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the Dublin International Impac Prize, was the Dublin: One City One Book choice for 2007. The Secret Scripture won the Costa Book of the Year Award, the Irish Book Awards for Best Novel and the Independent Booksellers Prize. It was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, Kerry Group Irish Fiction Award, Christopher Ewart-Biggs award and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize.
He lives in Wicklow with his wife and three children.