Sebastian Barry unfailingly gives us novels that display great craft and depth such as The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty, Annie Dunne, A Long Long Way and The Secret Scripture. This is not to mention his array of remarkable plays including Hinterland, The Pride of Parnell Street, The Only True History of Lizzie Finn (shown in a wonderful production on at the Southwark Playhouse in 2012) to name a few, and which mark him as one of the best living Irish playwrights. His latest novel did not disappoint.
This is a novel rooted in story telling and place, or rather as is a common theme with Barry: the character’s struggle(s) to grasp a sense of place. The Irish protagonist Jack McNulty is Barry’s latest creation who serves in the British army during the Second World War. But Jack is a wanderer through and through who travels the world in all kinds of roles as well as being a soldier: he is a Jack-of-all-trades but a master of none – temporary in every sense of the word.
The dramatic opening chapter is set in Accra, Africa long after the war and far from Jack’s hometown Sligo, Ireland, and it is from here that Jack is writing his memoirs – a useful narrative technique. The scene is then set to recall a lifetime of events. Readers of Barry have come to expect that there will be always be a great sadness that permeates all of his novels and there is little the reader can do to shield themselves from this fact: Barry’s novels are tragic.
Back in Ireland before the war in 1922, Jack meets his sweetheart Mai Kirwan, who is described as a great beauty of Sligo. Their honeymoon in Dublin is short but a blissful moment in time; every afternoon they go to the pictures and ‘it was suddenly as if our marriage was a shell on the stormy sea from which she was going to step, Venus renewed, ready for her second life.’ Sadly their ‘second life’ is not quite what they expected. Even the bounty of their courting days is overshadowed by a bad omen with Mai’s father warning her off Jack. Barry too warns us early on.
Although much of the novel’s focus is on Jack and his actions, including his liability for the (un)happiness of his wife, Mai is the far more compelling character. Her deeply tragic portrayal in the novel is less about the effect Jack has on her, and more about the troubled person that Mai already is, even before she marries Jack. Take their wedding day as an example – one which is perhaps at once the most bleakly romantic and melancholy wedding day ever to be described in literature – the trail left as Mai flees the altar: her veil on the floor ‘like a spider’s web cleared out of God’s mansion’, the gold band and finally Mai, ‘a white ghost in the sheeting rain…her lovely wedding dress looked like white seaweed on her.’ She says to Jack ‘I took fright, I took fright.’
Having just lost her father and as Jack narrates: he ‘felt the furnace of grief in her’, Mai is both weakened and vulnerable. Jack describes her as ‘the absolute child’ and rather revealingly says that ‘I felt like a doctor’ around her during the immediate time when she loses her father. This happens before the wedding and it soon becomes clear that Mai is still very much a child and when Jack abandons her, frequently away from their home and their children, the impact that this has on her is deeply detrimental.
Jack is an alcoholic and this also dangerously influences Mai to drink. However, Mai is unstable from the beginning. What is most poignant about their relationship is that they don’t know how to help each other, but yet there’s no question about their love for each other. Mai never really reveals how she is feeling to her husband, but does so instead to her friend Queenie – which is not necessarily an uncommon problem in marriage – yet when Queenie informs Jack about Mai’s disturbing words, he dismisses his wife’s problems, ignoring them as if by doing so they would go away.
The other compelling relationship in the novel is between Jack and his servant Tom Quaye when they are overseas in Ghana, who like Jack also has an estranged wife. The shared comradeship is a refreshing part of the story every so often, from the domestic and oppressive story of his wife and children.
Looking at the novel as part of its wider family (Jack’s brother is Eneas in The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty and his other brother Tom is married to Roseanne who is the main character in The Secret Scripture) certainly adds another thread and I would recommended but it doesn’t mean that the book cannot be read exclusively.
by Heather Wells