If you’re a fan of Sebastian Barry’s writing, you‘ve probably met Jack McNulty before, with the Irish-Catholic McNulty family featuring in several of Barry’s books.

Jack tells this story from Ghana, where he has settled after working for the UN, uncertain why he hasn’t gone home to his daughters and grandchildren, but finally ready to explore his past and his guilt.

As a working-class lad, Jack earned an engineering degree and fell in love with the vivacious and socially superior Mai. They married, travelled and had children; he worked in Africa and became a “temporary gentleman” as an officer in the British Army, serving in bomb disposal.

But Jack is the most unreliable of narrators and his memories are clouded by a haze of alcohol and by his willful refusal to see the truth. He’s a genial enough drunk, ready to sing and carouse rather than throw punches, but it’s no less viciously destructive for all that.

This is a sad and beautiful book, and Jack is a heart-breaker, in that charming, lilting, boozy, hopeless way. Many won’t like the ending, but it has a stark logic. CH

Verdict: bittersweet symphony ****

Published April 2014