Archive for the ‘McGahern, John (5)’ Category

That They May Face The Rising Sun, by John McGahern

November 10, 2012

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.

The Barracks, by John McGahern

November 16, 2010

Purchased at Chapters.ca

There is always a risk in approaching an author by starting with his best-known work, which is exactly what I did with John McGahern when I read Amongst Women 16 months ago. What if you love it and decide to read all of his work, which is also what happened with me and the Irish author? Having read the fifth of his six novels first, I had worked my way back through two earlier ones (The Leavetaking, his third, and The Dark, number two in order). Eventually you are going to have to read book one and there is every reason to expect that it will have some weaknesses.

The Barracks was published in 1963, more than a quarter of a century before Amongst Women (1990) and I am delighted to report that it is a more than worthwhile work, even if not quite up to the standard of the more famous novel. Indeed, I am quite happy that I read the books in this order — McGahern is one of those authors who returns in almost every book, or least all that I have read so far, to the same themes and explores them from different angles. Yes, he may get more adept and detailed as he goes along, but it is equally rewarding to see the raw emotion, even if it is explored with many rough edges, that is part of the first book.

Consider the central female character, Elizabeth, who married the older widower Reegan and became stepmother to his three children as part of the bargain:

She was nothing to these children. She had hoped when she first came into the house that they would look up to her as a second mother, but they had not. Then in her late thirties, she had believed that she could yet have a child of her own, and that, too, had come to nothing. At least, she thought, these children were not afraid of her, they did not hate her. So she gripped herself together and spoke pleasantly to them: they were soon quiet, laughing together on the shiny leatherette of the sofa, struggling for the torn rug that lay there.

If you know Amongst Women (and it is no spoiler if you don’t), you will know that it too features a second wife, Rose, who also acquired a family when she married — in her case two sons and three daughters. The husbands in both books (Reegan and Moran, respectively) are bitter, abusive, defeated creatures. (Yes, McGahern’s mother died when he was young and he too had a difficult relationship with his father.) Both Elizabeth and Rose lead lives of indescribable loneliness, despite being surrounded by “family” with all its ritual, including the nightly rosary said by the entire family. In this book, Elizabeth’s loneliness is heightened by her discovery of cysts in her breast, adding the fear of cancer to an already perilous existence, again reflecting McGahern’s personal experience.

It is fair to say that the author’s development of Rose in the later book is better, but there is also a lot to say for the emotional bluntness that McGahern portrays in this earlier book. Isolation is often better illustrated with starkness, than it is with nuance and detail.

It is also worth noting that Reegan, the husband and father, contains many of the characteristics that will be more fully developed in the later character, Moran. The barracks of the title of this book are in a police station in the newly independent Ireland. Reegan was active as a leader and commander in the independence movement, but now finds himself sidelined as a minor police sergeant, beset upon by his superior. His life is one of constant frustration and anger at his current station which seems so diminished from what he once was — at age 50, his one hope is trying to accumulate enough money so that he can resign and begin a new life as a farmer. In that sense, he and Moran are different, as Moran has abandoned all hope. But the theme of the warrior whose life is all downhill after the battle has been won is one that is obviously central to the author’s world view. In both cases, McGahern manages to show that apparently random bitterness and anger may have a very valid cause.

Finally, let’s look at the role of the Roman Catholic Church in McGahern’s Ireland. In this novel, it is rarely shown directly (Elizabeth loathes the local priest so only has the most formal, required contact) but it is never, never not looming as part of the picture. Here is what Elizabeth is thinking when she finally does go to the doctor’s office to reveal her cysts and is waiting for her name to be called:

She might have been kneeling in the queue in front of the confessional and her turn to enter into the darkness behind the purple curtain coming closer and closer. You were sure you were ready and prepared and then you weren’t any more when you got close, less and less sure the closer you got. Doubts came, the hunger for time, the fear of anything final — you could never bring all your sins into one moment of confession and pardon, you had lost them, they had escaped, they were being replaced by the new. The nerves began to gnaw at the stomach, whispering that you were inadequate, simply always inadequate. The penny candles guttered in the spikes of their shrine; the silver sanctuary lamp cast down its light of blood, great arum lilies glowed in the white evocation of death on the altar; reverential feet on the flagstones tolled through the coughing and the stillness.

——————

She felt the strain of waiting the same as she moved closer to the moment when the receptionist would call her name. The images echoed no afterworld, there were no vistas of hell and heaven; but the mind and the heart and the stomach reacted as if they were all the one.

In devoting so much space to comparisons, I don’t intend to demean The Barracks in any way. McGahern’s rural Ireland is not a pleasant place; it is a brutally challenging one. I think as he grew older, he began to understand it more thoroughly — which is part of the reason why this first, youthful effort (he was only 29 when The Barracks was published) has so much power to it. The Irish have produced some truly exceptional writers, but like my friend Kimbofo at Reading Matters who introduced me to McGahern (and has reviews of six of his books on her blog) I can’t help but argue that he may be the best.

I’ve got two more novels (and I am saving his last, That They May Face The Rising Sun, for my last), the short stories and, perhaps, his memoir to go. I can promise you will see thoughts on them all here eventually, although McGahern does demand that you leave some space between reads. Whether you read this book before or after Amongst Women it is an exceptional debut novel.

The Dark, by John McGahern

March 16, 2010

Purchased at Chapters.ca

Mrs. KfC suggested the other night that a St. Patrick’s Day posting might be appropriate (I know we treat the day much more seriously in North America than the Irish do — any excuse to drink beer in March, I’d say — but what the heck). I am susceptible to the slimmest of excuse to pick up another John McGahern novel and that suggestion was motivation enough. McGahern ranks as my personal “discovery” of 2009, with many thanks to kimbofo at Reading Matters and John Self at Asylum. They both know Irish fiction much better than I do, but both are also wonderful guides — you will find reviews of McGahern on both their sites.

The Dark was the McGahern novel that I had on hand, his second, a coming of age story that seemed a good counterpoint to The Leavetaking, my last McGahern, a novel that explored his own departure from the teaching trade.

The Dark opens with a classic scene that is typical of the author. The young narrator has used “that word”, his abusive father heard him and it is time for a whipping with the leather strop that is used to hone the knives and razors. He is forced to strip, in his sisters’ bedroom — perhaps even more humiliating than the punishment itself — and await his punishment from the evil father, Mahoney:

“Into that chair with you. On your mouth and nose. I’ll give your arse something it won’t forget in a hurry.”

“No, Daddy, no. I didn’t mean,” he gave one last whimper but he had to lie in the chair, lie there and was as a broken animal. Something in him snapped. He couldn’t control his water and it flowed from him over the leather of the seat. He’d never imagined horror such as this, waiting naked for the leather to come down on his flesh, would it ever come, it was impossible and yet nothing could be more worse than this waiting.

“I’ll teach you a lesson for once,” and then he cried out as the leather came, exploding with a shot on the leather of the armrest over his ear, his whole body stiff, sweat breaking, and it was impossible to realize he hadn’t actually been hit yet.

That quote is McGahern-dark and there is a lot of that in this book of the same name. The mother of the family has died, Mahoney is inclined to drink and abuse anyway and is well beyond his capabilities in raising the children. Parenting becomes a version of bullying and abuse; indeed what the narrator and his siblings most effectively learn is how to bond with each other in a mocking reaction against their father.

As terrible as family life is, it is a life that is known. And for the young in this family, that is a constant that may be better than what the future might hold. The narrator’s oldest sister has had her first period, there is no opportunity in the district and a priest who is an uncle has found her a “situation” in a drapery shop nearby — she is due to depart the nest:

“So the first bird is leaving the nest?” the priest said.

What was there to do but nod in vague depression, she was going, all departures touched in some way everyone’s departure, became disturbing echoes.

“You’ll not feel till your own turn?”

“No, father.”

“You have no final inkling of what you might do yet?”

“No, it’ll depend on the exams.”

“Do you still think of the priesthood?”

“Yes, father, if I could be good enough.”

“It was a great pity you were never sent to the Diocesan Seminary, the time your father wanted you to stay at home from school altogether.”

That exchange captures much of what is so good about McGahern. Joan is headed into the world — surely that must be a good thing given how terrible her existence in the family is, but, but, but — perhaps the future might be worse. And her departure plays back on the state of her brother, the narrator, who basically has four options:

– taking over the marginal farm from his father and remaining, at least for now, in the oppressive womb.
– the priesthood, as represented by his uncle.
– excelling in the Leaving exams, winning a scholarship to the University (only two are on offer in the entire district) or perhaps a spot with the ESB.
– moving to England, to seek his fortune there.

One of the things that McGahern does exceptionally well in this novel, at least for this reader, is alter the voice of his point of view. For me, some of the most impressive parts are narrated in the second person, by far the most difficult for an author to convey. The author puts you in the circumstances of his central character and leads you through all of the conflicts he is facing: opportunity? history? security? fear? Perhaps most impressively, he acknowledges that we all hedge our bets in the real world. That makes this a realistic novel of the first order.

The Dark is definitely not a cheery novel and it won’t go well with all the green beer that will be on the table here in North America on St. Pat’s Day tomorrow. It is, however, an exceptionally good novel that captures the difficult choices that a young man must make in this environment — if you want, the narrator is the polar opposite of Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye. Holden actively avoids choices, this narrator has no choice but to make them. If you have not read John McGahern, make room for him on your list. He is an exceptionally good writer and this dark, dark novel is a very good example of him at his best. Recommended without any hesitation.

Blog Tribute #1, Reading Matters: The Leavetaking, by John McGahern

November 25, 2009

Mid-November to mid-January tends to be my period for “catch up” reading. With various prize competitions finished and very few new releases on the horizon, it is a time to finally get to all those books that have hit the radar during the year and been put aside due to more pressing demands. When I looked at that pile this year, it came with another observation: Almost all the books at the top of the pile had come to my attention from the blogging world. KevinfromCanada did not exist as a blog at this time last year, but I was an active commentor on a number of blogs that I found informative — indeed, I eventually started this one because I was getting embarrassed by the increasingly lengthy posts I was putting up on other people’s blogs.

So as KfC approaches its first anniversary — and the 2009 “catch up” season begins — I’ve opted for a mini-project. It is a tribute to some of the bloggers whom I followed before I got into this most enjoyable hobby and will feature novels that came to my attention through their thoughts and comments. First up is Reading Matters, the literary blog of kimbofo, an ex-pat Australian, a journalist based in London (tweet, tweet — and that is not a reference to Twitter) and a frequent visitor to Ireland (it is amazing what love does when it comes to travel). She lives in a constricted flat in that wonderful city (space is a major issue for any devoted reader in London and kimbofo certainly shares her challenges — the picture above is her recently posted TBR pile), so that makes her my current expert on matters ranging from the West End to Kensington and even Bloomsbury, since she visits there often — they are important literary neighborhoods, so that is no mean recommendation. I appreciate that expertise very much (please, kimbofo, could you find the shop where Henry James purchased “the golden bowl”? — I know it is near Great Russell Street). If you don’t already know, kimbofo is also the blogging world’s leading expert — and advocate — of John McGahern, the outstanding Irish novelist who died just three years ago. I’d always been reluctant to try McGahern (he seemed just too Irish by description); it was kimbofo on her blog and in comments at John Self’s The Asylum who convinced me he deserved attention. I started with his best known work — Amongst Women — and loved it (you can find my review here and kimbofo’s here). I resolved to read more.

Purchased from the Book Depository

The Leavetaking is one of McGahern’s lesser-known works. While all of his novels have strong autobiographical components (his mother died of cancer when he was young, his father was a brute — those two elements are almost always present), this novel, first published in 1974, includes another element. Just as McGahern lost his job as a teacher in a mess of Irish Catholic politics, Moran, the central character of this book, is about to lose his. Moran’s “crime”? While taking a year sabatical in London, he fell in love with and married an American divorcee — that means he is living in sin in the eyes of the church and cannot teach school.

While that may be the framing event for the narrative, The Leavetaking comes in two very distinct parts. We know from page one that Moran is facing his last day as a teacher and it has sparked a train of memories, starting with the day the Master hired him:

“Should we have a drink to celebrate?” I asked and his face fell: fear that he had just hired a drunkard. His finger searched to his lapel, “I must have left my pin in the other suit,” he explained in confusion.

“I didn’t mean in a pub,” I quickly corrected. “An orange or a lemonade in a sweet shop.”

“That’s an idea,” he relaxed in relief.

We passed The Yacht as if it was a house of shame.

“Young teachers should stay clear of the pub. There can be too much free time in the profession. I’ve seen too many in my day come to grief on the high stool,” he advised as we reached a sweet shop and stood for a few minutes beside a pile of Sunday papers drinking lemonade from bottles through pale straws, but my appointment was now secure. It was all of nine years ago.

As Moran begins contemplating his “leavetaking” from the school, his mind goes back to another leavetaking — his relationship with his mother and her early death:

We chant the prayer before work. They take out their books. Mechanically I begin the lesson of the afternoon but I have no desire to bend to its arid discipline today of all days, if indeed I ever had. I’d never have been a teacher, I see clearly, but for my mother. Her dead world comes to life in my mind as I drift away from the classroom and out of this last day in it on a tide of memory.

“Who do you love most in the world?” my mother used often to ask me in the evenings.

“You, mother,” I answered in that dead June evening.

“That’s not right. You know who you love most.”

“You, my mother.”

I was not raised a Catholic but even I know the youthful Moran has got the answer wrong:

To get her love I’d have to trot out the catechism answers that I hated.

“God,” I said.

“And after God?”

“Mary, my mother in Heaven.”

“And after Mary?”

“You, mother.”

“No, you know that’s wrong.”

“I love my earthly mother and father and brother and sisters equally.” I resented then having to affirm what I did not feel.

The rest of the first half of the book is devoted to Moran’s memory of that relationship (his mother wanted him to be a priest but teaching was entirely acceptable as “the second priesthood”). Like McGahern’s own mother, Moran’s has a difficult relationship with her husband, again like McGahern’s father, a member of the Garda who comes home from the barracks only occasionally, usually to father another child. Moran’s leavetaking of his mother is one of the more poignant that can be found in fiction.

The second half of the book is much faster-paced, less introspective and quite a bit easier to read. It tells the story of Moran’s year in London, how he came to fall in love and how he returned to Ireland, in the full knowledge that his unChurched marriage would eventually lead to his dismissal. It shares with part one an inevitability that is reflected in the title of the novel: everything that we do will eventually result in a leavetaking. McGahern rewrote this section of the book a decade after it originally appeared: “The more I saw of it the more sure I was that it had to be changed. The crudity I was attempting to portray, the irredeemable imprisonment of the beloved in reportage, had itself become blatant.” I haven’t read the original version, but this rewritten one is anything but “crude” or “blatant” — there is not a lot of anger or even emotion to Moran’s reaction to his unfortunate circumstances, rather there is a certain weariness about what must be, however unfair that is.

For me, The Leavetaking is not as complete or accomplished a novel as Amongst Women — it lacks the depth of story and characterization that that book has. Yet when you know McGahern’s own story and how closely this book parallels it, this becomes an important book. It is an author’s clear-eyed and unforgiving look at a version of his own history and it is told with a muted passion that can only be admired.

Thanks, kimbofo. Without you, I would never have read McGahern — and I am glad that I have now moved two books into the project. Interested visitor’s can find reviews of all of his novels but one (kimbofo is reluctant to finish her reading of McGahern) at Reading Matters.

Amongst Women, by John McGahern

July 9, 2009

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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