That They May Face The Rising Sun, by John McGahern

Gift from Kimbofo

I have said it before, but it is worth saying again: One of the joys of the book blogging world is being introduced to the work of outstanding authors who somehow have escaped my attention. And in my four-plus years of commenting and blogging, no author fits this description better than Ireland’s John McGahern. I am indebted to Kimbofo at Reading Matters for both my introduction to John McGahern and, even more, this post. She not only was the first to point me to McGahern (for which I am eternally grateful), she presented a first edition, hardback copy of his final novel, That They May Face The Rising Sun (2001), to Mrs. KfC when they had a Shadow Giller dinner in Toronto earlier this year.

I have reviewed four of McGahern’s earlier novels here and a brief description of each (in the order of my reading, not his writing) seems appropriate. It is fair to say that each involves the author’s representation of a “dark” element of the Irish experience. Amongst Women (1990) is probably his best known (there is a wonderful screen adaptation available) and perhaps darkest: the central male character reacts to his own frustration as a former IRA partisan with the continual brutal bullying of his second wife and his daughters. The Leavetaking (1975) explores the destructive influence of the Catholic church when a teacher loses his job as a result of incredibly petty religious politics. The Dark (1965) is a catalogue of the limited (and depressing) options available to young Irish males: subsistence farming, the priesthood, leaving for England or, joy of joys, winning a university scholarship. The Barracks (1963), his debut novel, contains all those elements as well, but focuses on them from a different point of view (and one seen elsewhere in Irish fiction), the life-sapping powerlessness experienced by the devoted Irish wife.

Despite all those depressing themes, there is joy as well as sadness in each of those books: it is clear that McGahern loves both his country and its people. None of those destructive elements have disappeared in this final novel but the novelist has smoothed their edges and reduced the hurt: That They May Face The Rising Sun is a celebration of rural Ireland and the people who live there.

Joe and Kate Ruttledge have come to their new small farm just outside Shruhaun from a productive, but unfulfilling, life in London. For Joe it is a return to the area of his birth and youth, for English-born Kate it is a new experience. McGahern uses his first chapter both to sketch their new setting and introduce the neighbors in the lakeside community to which they now belong:

The morning was clear. There was no wind on the lake. There was also a great stillness. When the bells rang out for Mass, the strokes trembling on the water, they had the entire world to themselves.

The doors of the house were open. Jamesie entered without knocking and came in noiselessly until he stood in the doorway of the large room where the Ruttledges were sitting. He stood as still as if waiting under trees for returning wildfowl. He expected his discovery to be quick. There would be a cry of surprise and reproach; he would counter by accusing them of not being watchful enough. There would be welcome and laughter. When the Ruttledges continued to converse calmly about a visit they were expecting that same afternoon, he could contain himself no longer. Such was his continual expectation of discovery that in his eavesdropping he was nearly always disappointed by the innocence he came upon.

There may be a lot wrong with Ireland, but this small community of people is determinedly immune from that: they both respect and love the environment around them and the other individuals who inhabit it. Jamesie and his wife Mary live across the lake from the Ruttledges — their biggest challenge is coping with Jamesie’s brother Johnny, who left for England decades ago, but returns for a few disruptive weeks every summer. Bill Evans is a product of a rural Irish orphanage: kicked out to be a farm laborer at age 14 he now lives in a falling-down shack, carrying two pails of water up the hill each day from the lake to the nuns’ house. The Shah, Joe Ruttledge’s uncle, is as close to an economic “success” story as the community has — though he can’t read or write, he took over the abandoned railway station, sold the rails for his initial stake and built a lucrative business (for this rural settlement, at least) tearing apart rundown vehicles and selling the parts.

This wouldn’t be Ireland without the Church and the IRA, so there is also a priest and a local IRA commander — but the author chooses to emphasize their human side as members of the community rather than emphasizing their more sinister aspects as he did in previous novels.

McGahern introduces and establishes all this bunch early on — the early chapters feature a lot of dialogue as he gives each of them a voice, usually used to introduce their back story. Once he has his cast in place, however, he devotes more space to descriptive passages of what surrounds them that are every bit as powerful as the characters he has placed in this world. Consider this establishing introduction to a hospital visit when Ruttledge is taking local handyman Patrick Ryan to visit his dying brother:

The spires of the churches on the hill rose above the low roofs of Carrick, and on a higher isolated hill across the town stood a concrete water tower, like a huge mushroom on a slender stem. The long stone building had been the old workhouse and was now part of the hospital. Age had softened the grey Victorian harshness of the stone.

The open wards they walked through were orderly and clean. The men in the military rows of beds were old. As they passed down the brown linoleum-covered corridor, many were in their own world, a few engaged in vigorous conversation with themselves. Others were as still as if they were in shock. Sunday visitors gathered around certain beds in troubled and self-conscious uselessness, but they formed a semblance of company and solidarity against those who lay alone and unvisited.

That’s about as “urban” an example of descriptive power as the book contains. I’m not even going to try to find one where McGahern presents the natural environment — trust me, they are even more exceptional.

By conventional standards, not a lot happens in the lives of these people — haying season, a wedding, a cattle auction, a thought by Johnny that he will return from England all represent major “plot” elements in the novel. McGahern dealt with the “extraordinary” dark elements of Ireland in his previous novels; in this one, he is much more concerned with portraying the exceptional, ordinary people (yes, I know that seems contradictory) who are part of a very welcoming, ordinary world.

The result of all this is a perfect gem of a book. While I was somewhat overwhelmed by the author’s rapid introduction of the characters in the early pages, it did not take me long to feel very much a member of this community — it was a delight to get to know them better and to become a witness to both their challenges and triumphs. By the time the book finished, I had a deep affection for every one of them; even the rogues had their charming side.

My own approach to McGahern certainly colors my experience but, if you haven’t tried him yet, I would not suggest starting with That They May Face The Rising Sun, despite the effusive praise of this review. I fear that if you haven’t read McGahern’s portrayal of Ireland’s brutal side (he did not have a particularly pleasant personal life, it should be noted) this ode to the beauty and strength of both the country and its people might seem somewhat slight. Rest assured, you will want to read more than one McGahern — this novel is best saved as a soothing antidote to the harsh reality that he presents in his other books.

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17 Responses to “That They May Face The Rising Sun, by John McGahern”

  1. Sharkell Says:

    This was my first McGahern book and I have all the others on my wishlist. Loved your review, loved the book. I also read it as a result of reading Kimbofo’s review. I have read enough of the brutal side of Irish life in other novels so I didn’t feel that this novel was ‘slight’. I totally enjoyed the gentleness and slowness of the novel – the writing is amazing!

  2. Lisa Hill Says:

    Me too, I read The Barracks because Kim recommended it!

  3. kimbofo Says:

    Ah, my work is done :-) You, Sharkell, Lisa…

    No, but in all honesty, I’m so glad you enjoyed this. I think it perfectly sums up what it is like to be a member of a rural community (I recognised aspects from my own upbringing in rural Australia) and for people to look out for one another. It’s a gentle book, but it packs quite an emotional punch. I love the quote “The best of life is lived quietly, where nothing happens but our calm journey through the day, where change is imperceptible and the precious life is everything…”

    On a trip to Ireland in 2011, I hunted out a few of the sites where this book is set http://kimbofo.typepad.com/readingmatters/2012/03/john-mcgahern-30-march-2006.html

    Oh, and for any of your readers having trouble tracking down this book, I believe it was published under a different name — By the Lake — in North America.

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Think how much reading pleasure you are bringing across the world, Kimbofo. :-) And your work is not done yet — my “Kimbofo shelf” with volumes bought because of your reviews still has lots of books on it.

    I agree that versions of the community that McGahern presents can be found around the world (western Canada certainly has some that have been represented in literature) but I also think in this book he puts some particular Irish “demons” in their place. The priest is a decent enough chap (that alone is unusual) but his neighbors are mildly dismayed that he shows up with his catlle at the auction — the church should know its place and stay out of commerce. And everybody knows the IRA boss is under constant watch from the alley across the street, but that has about as much impact on the community as a regular visit from the garbagement.

    Whatever — I know that I will remember many of these characters for a long time to come.

  5. Gavin Says:

    This novel, published in the US as By The Lake, was my introduction to McGahern. He is one of my favorite authors.

  6. acommonreaderuk Says:

    I read this some years ago and enjoyed it greatly. I like the fact that “nothing much happens” – the book seems to capture rural Ireland perfectly with its mix of traditional and new – although this was written before the Celtic Tiger boom which brought even more change to this deeply rural nation.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      By keeping things “simple”, McGahern created the opportunity to fully develop his characters — and he did that exceptionally well. I agree that the arrival of the Celtic Tiger (and perhaps even more its departure) created an entirely new story, one that some novelists have started to explore (Anne Enright’s latest comes to mind) but given the Irish writing tradition, I suspect we will see even more.

  7. leroyhunter Says:

    I think it is a wonderful novel, Kevin, probably his best and in my view worthy of consideration in the highest company. So many of the phrases you use (“perfect gem”…”deep affection”) mirror my own reactions to the book. I think you’re right that you do become incredibly involved with the characters and the setting; the craft and the beauty are there in the way McGahern forges such a strong affection that even relatively small incidents assume the weight and importance of lived experience.

    His short storeis beckon from the shelf….

  8. Robin Dawson Says:

    Thanks for your very favourable review of this book Kevin. When I saw a copy in the local 2nd hand book shop today I snapped it up. Somehow he’s an Irish writer who has escaped me to date – now I look forward to making his acquaintance. Thank heavens for bloggers – they widen my horizons.

  9. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Robin: Thank you for the kind words. And if you have checked out my other McGahern reviews here, you will know that this one is quite different in tone — but they are every bit as good in their own way.

  10. Terry O'Sullivan Says:

    This is a terrific book. I’ve read all of John McGahern’s books and this is definitely my favorite. I have read it twice. McGahern’s other novels have a dark tone – this one, in my opinion, has a very optimistic and perhaps even a spiritual tone. It left me with strong images of odd and entertaining characters, beautiful landscapes, a changing countryside, and perhaps most of all, a deep appreciation for the passage of time and the changes that time brings. I grew up in rural Ireland in the 1980s, left it to find work in England, and became dismayed by the changes that the Celtic Tiger brought about in the 1990s/early 2000s. Somehow, I always felt that this terrific novel was a harbinger of what was to come: set in the early- to mid-1980s it captures Ireland at the cusp of those changes. McGahern always had a great feel for how people spoke, and then would adorn that with beautifully descriptive passages that captured a sense of place and time. I expect to return to this book again in the future and enjoy all of those wonderful characters all over again. One of my all time favorites.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I can’t disagree with any of your thoughts — and look forward to re-reading this very charming and insightful novel again in another few years. I think you make a very valid point in capturing the way that McGahern seemed to understand Ireland so well that this novel does provide some isight on what was to come. Many thanks for a very perceptive comment.

  11. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I was reminded by your review of Toibin’s Brooklyn, not because of any similarities of plot or character, but by reason of a certain feeling of quietness.

    It’s a good job you said at the end not to start with this one. I had planned for Amonst Women to be my first McGahern, but reading your review I was thinking of putting this ahead of it until I read that section. You sold it too well!

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      If you only had time to read one McGahern, I’d have a difficult time saying whether it should by Amongst Women or this one. And then I would go right on to say that really you should plan to read as many McGahern’s as you can. For me, part of both the power and the beauty of this novel was being aware of the outright anger that is present in some of his other novels.

      Toibin’s Brooklyn did come to mind for me while reading this novel. Both portray small communities and their challenges — and both have that powerful Irish element of the pull to relocate somewhere else (and the equally powerful element of wanting to return).

      • Max Cairnduff Says:

        If I were only likely to read one McGahern I wouldn’t have held back so long. My fear is the first will be just that, the first with many more thereafter given the evident quality of his writing.

      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        You will find him a quick read — one of McGahern’s strengths is the clarity and straightforwardness of his prose. He is one of those authors whom you spend more time thinking about after reading rather than during it, if you get my awkward point.

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