Sebastian Barry is famed for chronicling the story of 20th century Ireland in his novels. Powerful, poetically charged novels which have earned him two Booker short-listings, a Costa Book of the Year Award and a James Tait Black Memorial Prize, to name but a few.
They are novels in which he set out to dramatise the foibles, fortunes and misfortunes of members of his own family. Yet in so doing he has written a kind of secret history of his homeland, an extraordinary chronicle of "history's leftovers", as one prominent Irish critic put it, "men and women defeated and discarded by their times."
His latest and eighth novel, The Temporary Gentleman, is another part of that ambitious ongoing literary project Barry himself deems to be "a small effort to write people back into the book of life."
In The Temporary Gentleman Barry tells the story of his maternal grandfather, a man who'd seeded his grandson's love of storytelling with tales of his travel and war exploits, but who'd squandered his own good fortune through gambling and alcohol. Barry first wrote about his grandfather in a small novella in 1981, based on the stories his mother, actress Joan O'Hara, had told him.
"You think there are certain people you can't offend, but I certainly did offend him," Barry says. Not that it prevented Barry writing a play about him, Our Lady of Sligo, 10 years after his grandfather's death. "But I always felt I was very hard on him when I wrote about him before," he says. "I suppose you could make an argument that this book is hard on him - it is much darker than the others. But then I was on different ground."
Indeed, the protagonist of The Temporary Gentleman, Jack McNulty, is the older brother of the title character in Barry's 1998 novel, The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty, and brother-in-law to Roseanne McNulty from his 2008 Costa Award winning novel, A Secret Scripture. But he is unlike any of Barry's previous protagonists in that he is not prey to circumstance: he is the architect of his own downfall.
"He is," says Barry, "the victorious king who manages to reverse his chess game so that he's the snookered king, or even the snookered pawn."
In Barry's telling, McNulty is the narrator of his own tale. Holed up in Ghana, in 1957, where he was once stationed during the war, McNulty is battling the booze and the ghosts of his past while writing a memoir of his long dead, long-suffering wife, Mai, and their turbulent, alcohol-ravaged marriage.
"The real man behind it did have a ledger, an old accounts book, where he was supposed to write his autobiography because he'd been all over the world, he'd seen amazing things, but he never got beyond three scribbled pages because he instantly hit things that he couldn't talk about. And I write this book through him in some way, as a piece of sympathetic magic to try to spruce his soul in heaven. That sounds ridiculous but there's a degree of that for me - that recognising he rescued me as a child."
While the novel soars on prose of heart-stopping melodic beauty, it is an undeniably bleak tale of alcohol and ruin, with dysfunctional love at its heart. "It was very interesting to me, just forensically nearly, to be very clear about the happiness of him and Mai when they first knew each other," Barry says.
"But it's also a very grown-up book in the sense that they fancy each other so much that maybe that's an addiction. We like to think of love as a redeeming quality but it's also sometimes maybe the chain that binds one misguided person to another. But is not alcohol, which can obviously be delightful, also a most pernicious and destructive heroin-like drug?
"So there is that too, for them. If you could itemise the history of alcohol in Irish families, you would wonder why it isn't three times more illegal than heroin. But somehow we allow it."
Barry's fabled eloquence is doubly palpable when he speaks about Ireland. He insists that for writers, "it is our business to love our country, but my God, we make it very difficult sometimes. It is a constant battle to redefine, refine and re-find that love of country."
He is a passionate believer too that nothing in history should be left unsaid. "That was an instinct that I had starting out in the 70s and 80s. All the trouble of Ireland it seems to me, the private history of Ireland has risen out of the secrecy and silence surrounding the darkness of institutional child abuse, person abuse, abuse of women, humiliation of women, with all the populace fully aware. You have to risk saying: all of us, we all did that."
He is unstoppable as he speaks of "those magical days" in Ireland, "where men who had been in the Borstal were on the radio, telling their stories to the nation with the tongues of angels."