A rarely acknowledged fact of critical life is that the worse a book is, the cleverer the reviewer tends to seem. This is unfortunate in the case of Sebastian Barry’s new novel. The Temporary Gentleman is a tender, harrowing, lovely book.
Jack McNulty is an engineer, born in Sligo in 1902. Despite growing up in the most Irish of the provinces, Jack is an instinctive West Brit – an Irish person with Anglophile leanings as well as Irish ones – and he joins up to fight in the Second World War when it breaks out. The great event of his life, however, occurs when he meets Mai Kirwan, a Galway beauty, at university.
The book takes the form of Jack’s memoir, written in 1957 as a former UN employee living in Ghana and thinking about returning to Ireland. His narrative moves back and forth between his life with Mai, who has died, and his current, shapeless exile. Somehow he and Mai, two intelligent