The Temporary Gentleman – book review

The Temporary Gentleman by Sebastian Barry is a novel about a complex and troubled man which takes place during a troubled and complex time in Irish history.

The story takes place immediately before, during an after World War II; a war in which Ireland remained neutral. The hero of the story is a young  Irish engineer by the name of Jack McNulty who has volunteered for the British Army. Due to his engineering education he is made an officer. (Hence the name “temporary gentleman”.)

However, this book is not what would be called a war story. The main story is about Jack’s life in Ireland before the war when he was perusing the beautiful Mai Kirwan. Like Jack she is a Catholic, but she comes from a family that is so wealthy and conservative that many people “assume they are Protestant.”

Jack wins Mai’s heart, but it is only after they are married that he discovers that underneath the physical beauty Mai is a dark and troubled soul. Jack is total unprepared for her issues, given the many problems he faces with his own personality, not the least of which is his drinking.

The backdrop for the personal conflicts in Jack’s life is the internal conflict in Ireland itself created by World War II. The Irish were deeply divided about what Ireland’s role in the war should be. On the one hand Ireland had only recently won its independence from the British and  many Irish had a deep hatred of all things British. At the same time, hundreds of thousands of Irish men volunteered for the British armed forces during the war, and hundreds of thousands of other Irish men and women went to England to work in the munitions factories during the war.

Jack is able to return home on leave several times during the war. He finds that the way the Irish are handling the controversy about the war is to simply  ignore it. On leave he goes to a pub with old friends while wearing the British uniform.  Lots of people say hello, and ask him about his wife and children. People talk about the weather and the crops. And yet, not a single person mentions Jack’s uniform or speaks about the ongoing war.

On each trip home, Jack finds that Mai is progressively getting worse. His time at home is always taken up with attempting to set things right again before returning to the war.

The novel is written as a memoir by Jack McNulty long after the war. It is not really meant to be published, but is more if a cathartic exercise for him where he is able to look back honestly on all the mistakes he made and all the things he should have done. The memoir jumps around in different points in time in Jack’s life, which adds to the mystery of what will happen next. In retrospect, Jack must question his own motivation for the major events in his life. Did he really feel strongly about the war, or was joining the army just a way to escape from a wife on the verge of madness?

This is a beautifully written and very moving story. Sebastian Barry is a prolific writer. He is the author of five other novels, thirteen plays and even two collections of poetry. If you have not read him before, we recommend The Temporary Gentleman as a wonderful introduction to an excellent author.

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