Amongst Women, by John McGahern

mcgahernIf there is a shortlist of abusive, bullying fictional fathers, Moran deserves to be on it. He has a first name in John McGahern’s Amongst Women but, since the author rarely uses it, neither will I. As for the abusive, bullying part, McGahern wastes little time, opening the novel with:

As he weakened, Moran became afraid of his daughters. This once powerful man was so implanted in their lives that they had never really left Great Meadow, in spite of jobs and marriages and children and houses of their own in Dublin and London. Now they could not let him slip away.

Moran was not always this way. As a youth, he was quite the ladies’ man and a superb dancer to boot. He led a column with some distinction during the Irish war of independence; it was only when the Republic was established that he began an inexorable retreat from the real world, eventually limiting himself to a notion of “family” where he could practise his bullying behavior on his second wife and the children borne by his first. In that opening section, the three daughters are planning a reprise of “Monaghan Day” to cheer him up — the author uses it to set the story of Moran’s final withdrawal from the non-family world.

Monaghan Day came each end-of-February after the fair in nearby Mohill. McQuaid, one of Moran’s subordinates during the war, now a successful cattle dealer, would show up for remembering, story-telling and whiskey drinking. As this later re-enactment unfolds, Moran remembers:

“For people like McQuaid and myself the war was the best part of our lives. Things were never so simple and clear again. I think we never rightly got the hang of it afterwards. It was better if it had never happened. Tired now. You were all great girls to travel such distances to see one sick old man.”

McQuaid actually did get the hang of it as we discover when McGahern flashes back to the last Monaghan Day that Moran and McQuaid shared. It will give the only clues the author will provide to what has produced this abusive creature:

His (Moran’s) fascination with McQuaid’s mastery of his own world was boyish. He had never been able to deal with the outside. All his dealings had been with himself and that larger self of family which had been thrown together by marriage or accident: he had never been able to go out from his shell of self.

While the IRA “won” the war and the Republic was established, it represents no victory to Moran. In his view, many of the men who fought got nothing — the Republic has been taken over by a version of traitors to the point that he even rejects taking up the IRA pension for which he is eligible. He goads McQuaid, his last friend, to the point where the latter concludes:

As on all the other Monaghan Days stretching far back he had come intending to stay the night. Tonight a growing irritation at Moran’s compulsion to dominate, to have everything on his own terms or not at all, had hardened into a sudden decision to overturn the years and quit the house at once. As soon as Moran saw McQuaid on his feet again he knew the evening, all the evenings, were about to be broken up and he withdrew back into himself. He would neither plead with him to stay nor help him with his leaving.

Moran’s withdrawal from the outside world is complete (and all of this takes place by page 21 of a 184-page book). He is left with clinging to the “self” of family, the only place where he can exercise his dominant, abusive behavior. Even here, there are problems — his eldest son has already fled to England and refuses contact; his youngest son is showing similar signs of rebellion as he matures. Only his second wife, Rose, and his three daughters are willing to bend to his will. The bulk of the book is the story of the hell that this creates.

Moran is capable of at least occasionally being a decent person with his three daughters, although he uses that talent almost capriciously to continue his domination. With his sons, that side of him never shows — as though it was a talent he never bothered to learn. He has a host of controlling devices (including his leading of the decades of the Rosary each evening) and he devotes his life to exploiting them.

Given my recent reading, it was hard not to compare Amongst Women to two other books: Marilynne Robinson’s Home and Patrick Lane’s Red Dog, Red Dog. All three involve explorations of how controlling fathers use an idea of “family” to effect their children, negatively. In each case, the male offspring rebel, the females submit (in Lane’s case, the three daughters are virtually killed off by their parents before the age of six months). Robinson uses this framework to suggest the need for a discovery of soul (which I found least satisfying of the three). Lane explores whether the current generation can overcome a pattern of generations of family misery. McGahern examines the outcome when the driving force is simply selfish behavior by the father.

Despite his horrible behavior, I felt some sympathy for Moran. I had some questions about taking on this book because of the promo — “Moran is an old Republican whose life was forever transformed by his days of glory as a guerrilla leader in the War of Indepence” — and a feeling that I had read as much as I wanted to about the fallout from the Troubles. That is definitely not the case; in fact, McGahern’s 1991 novel has a very significant message for those of us who live in North America and the United Kingdom in 2009.

In all wars, some ordinary men (and now women) do extraordinary things. The problem is that when the war ends, the world demands that they be ordinary again — and they don’t know how to do that. Too often that plays out with maltreatment of those closest to them. A number of fiction works explored that phenomenon following both World Wars; some of us are old enough to have seen personal experiences from the Vietnam War. Part of what makes Amongst Women so poignant and heart-breaking is that the seeds for similar stories are being sewn in Iraq and Afghanistan today.

Amongst Women is not a perfect book — why Rose ever married Moran is perhaps a question better left unasked. Whatever its weaknesses might be, however, the thoughtful reader will find it to be one that lives on in memory.

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11 Responses to “Amongst Women, by John McGahern”

  1. Colette Jones Says:

    Moran struck me as a perfect example of people who think saying the rosary every day is all they need to do to be “good”. It is a delusion, and possibly fairly common, as I do know a few people like this.

    Interesting connection between three books, the boys rebelling, girls submitting.

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    McGahern leaves little doubt that saying the rosary here is an expression of control, not religion.

    Parts of this book also reminded me of the play, Juno and the Paycock. While the Irish men busy themselves with their “wars” and suffer from the resulting fallout, the women are quietly but effectively going about the business of making the world work.

  3. kimbofo Says:

    Excellent review, Kevin!

    I thought Moran was one of those men, of a certain generation, who has trouble expressing himself emotionally, hence it’s easier to hit out at others and expect them to bend to your will, rather than having to admit your own weaknesses.

    You’ll find this grumpy, bullying, dominant father figure pops up in all McGahern’s books, and it was only when I read his Memoir that I realised this character is based on his father, whom he spent all of his life trying to understand.

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Agreed, kimbofo. Moran can only understand black and white (which was why the war experience was comfortable for him) and, slowly but surely, that means his world shrinks to the female members of his family whom he can dominate. As your comment implies, McGahern is not just reflecting his own father with this type of character but also a fair number of males from his father’s generation,

  5. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Fascinating, it sounds a tremendous character study. The comparison with Juno and the Paycock is also intriguing, I saw that with the excellent Colm Meaney in the title role and with an excellent cast generally and it is a very skilled play. Rewarding stuff.

    Not a lot to add really, but an excellent review and one that leaves me wanting to read the book itself.

  6. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I’m pretty sure I saw the same production of June and the Paycock (Donmar Warehouse, about 10 years ago — a cast of great Irish actors that was almost as large as the audience). I remember that production well because it was the first time that gender focus landed with me. I know from reading other forum observations that I am being kinder to Moran than most readers (especially women) are. One of McGahern’s strengths in his ability to develop characters in a way that allows different readers to see different depths — so I am not surprised that female readers react somewhat differently to this work than I do. Given your interest in eastern European literature, I think you would find this one interesting — the Irish Troubles have created their own damaged survivors and this book bears comparison in that sense. I certainly intend to read more McGahern.

  7. Max Cairnduff Says:

    That’s the one, yes. Ten years though? I think it was more recent than that (though one of the things with getting any older than about 20 is increasingly things seem more recent than in fact they are).

    Have you read Colm Toibin’s The Heather Blazing? An excellent book on not only the troubles but also many issues facing (then) contemporary Ireland.

  8. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: I did not think it was 10 years, but I googled and that seems to be the case. It is one of the best productions I have ever seen and I remember it to this day.

    Since you and Emma are in London, I wonder if you would undertake a task? Our blogging friend William Rycroft at Just William’s Luck has landed an acting job in War Horses at the New London. He has provided a review at his blog and the NY Times has done a superb feature story. Do you think you could head off and review his performance (and of course the whole play) when he joins the cast in September? We blogging friends of his in Calgary, Belfast, South Orange, etc. would appreciate an opinion from someone who could see it for real. The production certainly looks interesting and you certainly have the credentials to make an observation.

  9. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I’ll certainly try Kevin, depending on ticket availability.

  10. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Thanks, Max — it does look like an interesting production. I will post a note on Will’s blog saying that we blogging friends intend to send a competent (that would be you) reviewer.

  11. Tom Cunliffe Says:

    I am a great admirer of John McGahern, rating That They May Face The Rising Sun as one of my all time favourite books. I have never encountered this one however and am pleased to discover that my local public library has it in stock. Thanks for your excellent review

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