Monday, October 31, 2011

The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty by Sebastian Barry

The first novel I read by Irish author Sebastian Barry was The Secret Scripture which turned out to be one of my top two favourite reads of last year.  Barry is simply a beautiful writer.  Not in that overdone, overly clever way that I sometimes find with contemporary literature, just original, flowing prose, from the first page to the last.

This is an odd title for a book, no?  Well it actually fits perfectly, because Eneas McNulty spends his whole life hiding from his countrymen, as a wanderer. 

Eneas McNulty is born at the turn of the twentieth century in Sligo in western Ireland.  A series of choices in Eneas young life, from going away to fight in the first world war on the side of England (because he is fascinated by France apparently) to taking a job with the Royal Irish Constabulary, finds Eneas an outcast from his much loved home.  He is at odds with his childhood friends who become Irish freedom fighters and declare that if he sets foot in Ireland again, they will kill him. 

I loved the history lesson in this novel and I equally loved that Barry manages to compress a life into 300 pages.  Not a word or page is wasted.  Barry does not take sides in his narrative about the Irish history, but focuses on the effect of the conflicts on individuals on both sides.  The symbol of clothes is used to great effect in the novel, (note the old blue suit depicted on the cover) in a time when much is left unsaid, the changing clothes of the various characters come to symbolise how they see themselves or at least want to see themselves.

The tone of the novel is quiet and lonely.  Indeed I have not read a better evocation of loneliness, as Eneas goes from continent to continent, and makes two surreptitious trips back to Ireland, trying to eke out an existence for himself.  Barry gives us a portrait of a guileless, honest man, caught up in events he did not foresee.  It is also a scary portrait into the passing of time in all of our lives, at least it connected with me in that way.  The jumping of the years and decades is completely seamless, and there is something very confronting I think, when a character ages swiftly and convincinly, before the reader's very eyes, so to speak.

There are similarities between the The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty and The Secret Scripture, indeed the lives of Eneas McNulty, and Roseanne (the main character in The Secret Scripture) intersect in both novels.
They are lonely, marginalised people, but for different reasons.  Reading about the same characters in two different books is quite fascinating as the points of view are explored so differently.

Of the two, The Secret Scripture for me is the stronger of the novels, mostly I think because it is a more dramatic story, and the character of Roseanne is more involving than Eneas, but that speaks to who they are as well.  Roseanne is passionate and a real fighter, who is locked away from the world, whereas Eneas is a  lost soul, adrift in the world.  He is more remote.  But from first to last he stays true to his own goodness, and demonstrates he is not at all stupid, just a moral man, barred from his home.

I admire The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty because it is truly haunting, and the ending, which is very dramatic by the way, is consistent and satisfying.  In both cases the joy of the novels is Barry's writing.  When I read his prose it comes to mind that not just anyone can write well, it is a craft and his craft is honed to heavenly perfection. I am not kidding, read him and see.  I would highly recommend Sebastian Barry to anyone.


  1. I read The Secret Scripture earlier this year and really enjoyed it, and just finished A Long Long Way which is simply incredible. One of my favorites--ever. I'm glad to know that this is a good one too; I'm looking forward to reading it.

  2. I read The Secret Scripture last year and in fact it is one of my in-person book group reads for November/December. I haven't read any others yet but I do have this one and A Long Long Way.

    I really ought to bump him further up the list - it's so good to hear that his books continue to be brilliant.

  3. I loved The Secret Scripture and I remember the character of Eneas McNulty, so I'd like to read this book too. And I can recommend Barry's newest book, On Canaan's Side, which is also beautifully written.

  4. Wonderful review. I'd not heard about this author but you have me very intrigued!

  5. You have convinced me - fantastic review Mel!

    You are right about the title -- it is unique. I am struck by your description of the mood of this book -- the despair and loneliness...

  6. Melody - I look forward to reading A Long Long Way

    Fiona - I think you will enjoy this one, as you enjoyed The Secret Scripture. The cross over in characters also adds an extra dimension

    Shereadsnovel - I have heard of On Canaan's Side, I think that is where I will be heading next.

    Jenners - I think you would love him. The Secret Scripture was my first read by him and I was hooked.

    TheBookGirl - Thank you! Based on my reading of your reviews, I think you would enjoy Barry. I would recommend starting with The Secret Scripture


Comments are very welcome.