The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty by Sebastian Barry Picador, pounds 12. 99; Michael Arditti sinks in style
With his series of plays on the lives of his ancestors, Sebastian Barry has gained a prominent place among contemporary Irish dramatists. And yet even his most successful work, The Steward of Christendom, was praised more for its literary qualities than for its dramatic tension. So it comes as no surprise to find Barry turning his attention back to fiction. The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty is his second novel, his first for more than a decade. It combines the life of its protagonist and an oblique look at the troubles of Ireland this century in the framework of classical myth.

Eneas is a Sligo man, eldest and simplest of four children whose eccentric upbringing is vividly depicted: their father works as a tailor in the local asylum. Less a holy fool than "a guilty innocent", Eneas becomes an alien in his community through his association with the British, first as a merchant seaman in the 1914-18 war and then in the Royal Irish Constabulary. On receipt of a death sentence from the Republicans (which hangs over him like a curse in classical myth), he spends his life in exile: as a trawlerman, a soldier in Normandy and a labourer in Nigeria.

Exile is a central theme in Irish literature. When Eneas's sister addresses him as "you poor wandering man", she invokes the figure of Odysseus. The Odyssey having already provided a model for an Irish novel, Barry opts instead for the Aeneid. Like his literary forebear, Eneas is tossed about on the seas, travels to Africa and even has a fidus amates in the Nigerian, Harcourt, who has fallen foul of his own country's freedom-fighters.

Yet the classical prototype is not always helpful. Eneas's passive nature is better suited to the hero of an epic poem than to that of a modern novel. He remains an underdeveloped character - as though Barry is waiting for an actor to bring him to life.

Some of the writing sounds like a Virgil translation: "Heedless of brevity and longevity, of talk and stories, of guilt, of lonesomeness, of the ruined artefacts of the war under the simple sky, God brings Eneas again to the shore." Barry's dialogue is richly idiomatic, as when a man describes the victim of a police attack as "the poor bastard came running down Cook Street with his life leaking from his ears", but his prose is overwritten. While the imagery is powerful, its use is indiscriminate, unrelated to the intensity of the moment.

Well-worn episodes such as the Irish Civil War, the Great Depression and the Dunkirk evacuation are patched up with words. Unlike the poetic prose of a writer such as Anne Michaels, which enhances an understanding of 20th-century history, Barry's embroiders the past. When so much contemporary writing is utilitarian, it may seem perverse to complain about prose that is the opposite; but the overwhelming impression of reading this novel is that of a story subsumed by its style.