Books: Beautiful wanderer

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THE WHEREABOUTS OF ENEAS McNULTY by Sebastian Barry, Picador pounds 12.99

THIS IS the Irish writer Sebastian Barry's first novel in 10 years. He's spent the intervening time concentrating on being a poet and playwright, and it's tempting to try to trace the influence of these two genres in the heightened prose of his haunting new book.

The poetry is easy to find: it's in "the pewter jug on the bedside table that likes to hoard the sun and the moon"; in a beach "unfolding like a drying watercolour"; in "the stars set in their cold enamel aching somehow there in their distances". But while one might expect a playwright to go in for dialogue on an Ivy Compton Burnett scale, Barry offers surprisingly little in the way of direct speech. When his characters do talk, their lilting Irish voices are uncannily audible, but conversation tends to be spare and sparse, which is appropriate enough in a book whose central theme is the social isolation of its protagonist.

Eneas McNulty is a man drifting with the flotsam of history, a blameless individual whose very unassertiveness puts him at the mercy of fate. Born at the turn of the century in Sligo, he spends his childhood snug in the bosom of his family, mother dancing on the hearth, father playing the flute, and Eneas secure in the knowledge that he is the centre of the world. His first experience of displacement comes with the birth of his siblings; as he moves into the wider world, exile and loneliness become the dominant motifs of his life.

As a politically naive teenager, Eneas unwittingly dooms himself to exclusion from his own community by appearing to side with the British. Returning from a spell in the Merchant Navy during World War I, he goes to Athlone and joins the Royal Irish Constabulary on a whim, where he witnesses the murder of a fellow policeman by a Republican hit-squad who are subsequently killed in a reprisal shooting. Eneas is - falsely - suspected of having tipped off the "Reprisal Man". It is only when he returns to his parents' home in Sligo that he realises what this means.

Now on the Republican blacklist, Eneas can expect no mercy from his old school friend Jonno Lynch, who's thrown in his lot with "the dark men of freedom", or from the sinister businessman Mr O'Dowd, who runs Sligo with the iron hand of an Irish mafioso. A marked man, he is forced to flee his home, and he sets off on a lifetime of wandering which takes him to Grimsby as a fisherman, to Dunkirk as a soldier, to East Africa as a navvy, and through hellish periods of spiritual emptiness and mental disintegration.

As his name suggests, Eneas McNulty is a character whose epic status is both asserted and poignantly undercut. Without the go-getting confidence of Virgil's Roman colonist, he is a shadow, a nullity, a "rubbed out man". But he is also a latter-day Romantic wanderer with a heightened response to nature; and he is something of a holy fool - the "simpleton with a gaumy stare" who has the moral courage to refuse to save himself by agreeing to carry out a murder for the Republicans.

Despite its overt political theme, The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty isn't really a book about the Irish question. Instead, Eneas's exile becomes a metaphor for the human condition, conceived of as a separation from the innocence and security of childhood which will be found again only in the redemption of death. There is, it has to be said, a slight bagginess in the construction of Sebastian Barry's tale: one sometimes feels that he's less interested in narrative drive than in the beauty of his prose. Yet with prose so beautiful, who's complaining?