The Temporary Gentleman

By Sebastian Barry 

The symphonic nature of Sebastian Barry’s output is becoming clearer with each new novel. In The Temporary Gentleman, Barry contemplates the life and lessons of the third member of the McNulty clan in an absorbing family portrait that opens and opens to chart the inner life and experience of the nation itself. 

Jack, the derogatorily titled “temporary gentleman,” named after a British Army term for someone commissioned only for the duration of the war, has fetched up loveless and almost hopeless in Africa in 1957. 

Referring to himself as a “balding, ageing Irish ex-major,” Jack now lives his life “lurking in Africa like a broken-down missionary,” having been posted there during the war and finding himself unable to face returning to Sligo. 

It’s guilt over his abandonment of his wife Mai, once thought the greatest beauty in the county, that has imprisoned him in Ghana. 

In previous novels Barry has deftly explored what the Apollonian and reflexively authoritarian culture of interwar Ireland visited on good people. This is the first time he has taken someone so faithless and so familiar to task on his own terms.

The mythic under music that drives the books narrative is matched by the arresting beauty of Barry’s prose. You don’t simply read his novels; you are beguiled and enchanted by them. 

You are also being asked to live as the author does, simultaneously in time and somehow moving through it, the better to contemplate what Heaney called the magic of what happens.

The symphonic nature of Barry’s output, increasingly apparent in The Temporary Gentleman, is the latest part of what is already an extraordinary magnum opus. Few writers since Joyce have conjured the inner life of the Irish so completely. The Temporary Gentleman is the novel of the year. 

Viking, $26.96

The Hollow Ground
By Natalie S. Harnett

The Irish have often lived in dread of the way a ruinous pasts can haunt the present. In Natalie S. Harnett’s accomplished debut novel there’s more than a hint of Eugene O’Neill in this atmospheric meditation on the legacy of a generational curse once pronounced by an Irish priest on a Pennsylvania mining community.

The story has its basis in fact. After speaking out against the fiercesome Molly Maguires, the secret group that fought for the rights of coal miners in the 1800’s, the local priest is attacked and he afterward delivers a formidable curse on the Pennsylvania mining town in question. 

But it’s what Harnett does with her own telling of that story that powers this compelling debut novel. In 100 years not a building will stand in this place her priest avows and remarkably the curse more or less comes true. 

Harnett begins by introducing to the Irish American Howley family, who have inherited the land generations later in the 1960s and who now believe themselves to live under its legacy, which has seen some family members succumb to a series of sometimes fatal misfortunes.

But it’s not always the dark misdeeds of the past that haunt the present, so much as the darkness that sometimes resides within our own hearts, one protagonist wisely claims. 

History must contend with human nature after all. In The Hollow Ground Harnett has written an impressively nimble debut novel.

St. Martins, $24.99


Never Look Back
By Clare Donoghue

Thrillers are a dime a dozen, but tales this psychologically rich and unsettling don’t come along quite so often. In Never Look Back, Clare Donoghue’s confident debut, a murderer is stalking the streets of south London, attacking young women. 

On the case is Detective Inspector Mike Lockyer, whose own daughter could become a potential victim. Head of homicide on the south London police force, it falls to him to unveil the connections between three horrifying murders before it’s too late.

Donoghue’s gift is for creating tension that mounts as the plot thickens. Her London is a Sherlock Holmes one of swirling fog and icy streets, populated with instantly recognizable city types with so much to hide you’ll be startled by the number of reversals and plot twists that are guaranteed to satisfy even the most dedicated thriller reader. 

Never Look Back has a cinematic sweep, a modern London setting, and a body count that places every protagonist in harms way to keep you guessing all the way to its shocking end.

Minotaur, $24.99