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.” Read more here.