The Temporary Gentleman by Sebastian Barry

Hardcover, 288 pages
Publisher: Faber & Faber (April 2014)
Language: English
Selected by Mary Mount

This most recent of Sebastian Barry’s tremendously resonant novels is incredibly atmospheric, with an utterly beguiling central character.” —Mary Mount

Barry’s eight novel, and the third in his loosely related set of books about the Irish McNulty family, The Temporary Gentleman is narrated not by a hero but a villain: Jack McNulty, the “temporary gentleman”1 of the title. It is 1957 in Accra, Ghana, and McNulty is reflecting on a life poorly lived, too ashamed to come home. He decides to write a memoir, and it is this book within a book that exposes his weaknesses and sins. McNulty is a coward, an inveterate drinker and gambler, an abusive husband and an absentee father, traits that reveal themselves gradually over the course of this tragic novel, which spans continents and decades.  

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1922. 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, a shadow half-ruined by sunlight under the famous plane trees. Her blouse so white, with the soft bosom plainly moving within, that it was a bright shield in the underwood. And myself still very young, when the brain seemed to brook no real thought of the past or the future – the movement of time and the world stilled. I watched her from under the dark arch of the entrance to the quadrangle. It was still my first year in the university, in the time of the civil war.

She had many friends, chief of them a splendid girl called Queenie Moran, a great favourite in the college, but none of them among my own set, which was very male I suppose, technical-minded boys among the engineers, and those dark, mysterious chaps who got light only from the more distant galaxies of mathematics and physics. 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. Sometimes she could be seen in the small swarm of these women, coming out of lectures talking fast and loud, well aware I do not doubt of the lonesome male gazes thrown their way. And then there were those boys in their set that can insert themselves among a group of women, a talent in itself, the sons of doctors and even people in the new government, with the smoke of both victory and surrender drifting above their heads.

The way I found out she lived on the Grattan Road2 was I followed her home one evening, keeping at a distance behind her, like a detective or a thief, as she swept along the seafront. I was impressed by the fact that she never looked back, not once. The glass-dark acreage of the bay over to her left and the muddle of small cottages and bigger houses to her right seemed to funnel her efficiently all the way to Salthill.

She disappeared in through old gateposts with granite balls on top. I knew there must be metal spikes securing them invisibly and I found myself hoping her father did not have a similar spike in him, for the place spoke of considerable status and grandeur. I watched her open the big front door, go in, drag off her hat and scarlet coat and, with her right boot raised behind her like a skater, without looking back out into the dreary evening, kick the door shut.

In order for her to make her first remark to me, I had to keep putting myself in her way. I didn’t know any other method to utilise. I placed myself near her as she wandered out of one of her commerce lectures. I had watched her go in, spent the hour of the lecture traipsing about – and then more or less threw myself in her path. Terrified but resolute.

“I suppose you put a colour in that?” she said, looking at my red hair. “Who are you anyway? Everywhere I go, you seem to pop up like a jack-in-the-box.”

“Well, my name is Jack, now you mention it.”

“Which of the Jacks are you?” she said, as if there were a hundred Jacks in her life.

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[1] “Temporary gentleman” was a pejorative term used to describe a man from the lower classes who became a temporary officer during the First World War.
[2] Grattan Road is in Blackrock, an affluent slice of southside Dublin.

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