The protagonist in Sebastian Barry’s subtle exploration of masculine emotional impotence is torn between his family obligations and his allegiance to the British Empire, writes Lucy Scholes
Adrift in Accra
John “Jack” McNulty is a hardened drinker with a troubled private life. To the impartial onlooker, however, he’s a man devoted to duty, his life defined by service to a Britain that not all his fellow Irishmen and women feel deserves such devotion. An engineer by trade, in 1927 he joins the British foreign service, relocating with his wife Mai to what was then the Gold Coast in West Africa to serve as a district officer. Their happy life in the colonies is brought to a halt when, with Mai’s first pregnancy, they have to return to Ireland, but in the years that follow, McNulty finds himself drawn back to Accra, first during the Second World War, then later as a UN observer, one of the few colonial ghosts left watching as the newly independent Ghana emerges.
It is from Accra, in 1957, that McNulty narrates the story of his past – and here there are traces of Barry’s most famous novel, The Secret Scripture, in which his protagonist Roseanne looked back over the tragedies and passions of her life, recording her thoughts in a secret journal. So too, McNulty’s reminiscences are for his eyes only. He hurries to avert the interest of a local policeman prowling about his house; it’s not a diary, McNulty assures him, “it’s just a personal, very personal account of things. It has no relevance to anyone except myself, and even then, I am not sure why I am writing it”. Motivation aside, this “sort of memoir” offers him the first faint glimpses of something akin to understanding where previously only a “great fog has persisted”.
McNulty shouldn’t really be in Accra. He should be at home in Sligo with his children. His daughters are long since grown, with children of their own, but still he should be there, “even on the margins, ready to help, ready to advise. That is what a father can do”. But McNulty was never particularly good at being a father, or a husband either, for that matter, so instead he’s “lurking here in Africa like a broken-down missionary, without church or purpose, and merely holding off the hour of my leaving”. This inability to be there for his family runs like a core of rot through his past. His marriage fell foul of debt and drink – husband and wife were at least united in their dependence on the latter – and a great gulf widened between them over the years as McNulty helplessly watched his wife – the one-time famed Sligo beauty, a woman who once only had to look his way for his heart to tumble down into his boots before soaring back up to his trilby-topped head – sink into a slough of depression, haunted by an unknown terror that “scampered through her veins like a rat and took away from her every semblance of peace or enjoyment”. Unlike the pyrotechnics of a marriage imploding, this is a slow saga of two people helplessly adrift in their own lives, searching for nothing more than a “firm footing in the ordinary carnival of things”.
Barry, of course, is something of a master when it comes to the evocation of ordinary tragedies, and this subtle exploration of masculine emotional impotence is a lesson in the powers of suggestion. So able to do his duty by a country, to be heroic and brave and save other people’s lives (he spends much of the war working as an officer in London’s impossibly dangerous bomb disposal unit), when it comes to his own family, McNulty’s at a desperate loss. “It was one thing to be at the war, trying to find a path through that, and another to be here, pathless, rudderless.”
During leave one winter he returns home to find a hysterical Mai whipping their youngest daughter Ursula in their back yard in the middle of a snowstorm, the child wearing nothing but a nightgown. The violence and sadness of the scene is heartbreaking. This is a man who has constructed the infrastructure of an empire, but the real bridges McNulty needs to build are those between himself and his family.
Lucy Scholes writes for a variety of publications including The Independent, The Daily Beast and The Times Literary Supplement.