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.