The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty by Sebastian Barry

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Eneas is almost gone over into sleep, gone over like a rose goes over into decrepitude, no one sees just when.

The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty by Sebastian Barry begins with a brief rundown of Eneas’ childhood in County Sligo. Contentedly alone with his parents until age ten, Eneas’ world changes unexpectedly when three younger siblings are born one right after the other. Having lost the attention of his parents as an only child and having lost his best and only friend to the underbelly of Irish society, Eneas decides to run away from his loneliness by going to war, and ends up signing on with the British Merchant Navy.

When the war is over, Eneas realizes how much he misses home and he returns to Sligo, only to find a changed town. One war is over, but another has begun as the Irish begin fighting for their independence from England. Eneas is seen as a traitor for being in the British Merchant Navy and he can’t find work. To make matters worse the only employment he can find is with the British run police force in another county, which ends in events that wind up putting his name on the Irish rebel’s hit list.

He returns to Sligo and does his best to live in the shadows and to be forgotten by the townspeople. Despite his ostracism he meets a girl and falls in love, which crosses a line in the Irish rebels’ eyes. They will tolerate his existence no more. Eneas is to leave Ireland forever or be murdered. So Eneas chooses to leave, leaving behind the love of his life and his family, to make his way in the world, a lonely man always pining for what he has been forced to leave behind. He knows that to return would be a death sentence, but Ireland beckons to him like a siren and he doesn’t know if he’ll be able to stay away.

Although I joyfully celebrate my Irish heritage once a year, I am embarrassed to say I know absolutely nothing about Irish history (outside of what I’ve seen in the horror classic Leprechaun), which this book made me painfully aware of. So on my to do list I’ve added ‘read multiple books on Irish history’. This book is interesting in that it tells the side of a group of people who were persecuted wrongly, whereas I assume most books will focus on the legitimate war between the Irish and British, glossing over the cases like Eneas’ and the more sinister side of things.

This book was a change of pace from what I’ve been reading lately. It’s a depressing story from beginning to end, with no moments of levity to lighten the mood at any point, which I think made it the perfect transition from the frivolous books of summer to the more serious, literary adventures I associate with fall, fuzzy blankets, hot cocoa and fireplaces. The story itself kept my interest. Although not an action-packed plot, I kept reading and rooting for Eneas to win until the last page of the book. Barry’s writing was very lyrical and quite beautiful at times and he does such a great job expressing Eneas’ loneliness that I began going to bed at night feeling just as lonely myself. I feel like it sounds callous to say I enjoyed such a sad tale (like when I feel bad for ‘liking’ a sad HONY post), so maybe it would be better to say I appreciated it.

With his sandwiches as perishable talisman he accepts his mother’s kiss and she accepts his, and he heads away into bright Sligo with his soul as simple as a salmon’s.

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