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.