John McGahern sadly only came to my attention as a novelist of stunning depth and quality after his death.My introduction came last year with The Barracks, a novel that crept under my skin and lives with me still. In time honoured fashion I quickly ordered another, That They May Face the Rising Sun, knowing that I could elevate John McGahern into my top flight authors stack and would eventually read them all.
Then as usual nothing happened, shelved the book and forgot about it.
That is until an online list chose Amongst Women as its Book of the Month for February and suddenly I remembered John McGahern all over again.
I was surprised to find similarities in plot device, woman marries into ready-made family as step-mother to growing children, someone goes off to train as a nurse at The London Hospital but there the similarities ended, almost.
Almost, except yet again I am swept away by the power of the Irish writers I have read of late, thinking in particular of Anne Enright's The Gathering for last year's Booker Prize and the fascination for those of us not part of one, of the large and devoutly Catholic Irish family.
In my ignorance I probably tend to lean towards the ridiculous notion that everyone in Ireland is part of one of these, in the same way that perhaps people think everyone who lives in Devon is a farmer. Of course it's not true but the way that the form allows for the exploration of the characters is matchless.
Fictionally on offer the tightly regimented and disciplined home, the communal kneeling and recitation of the evening rosary, usually a black sheep in the midst hinted at obliquely, the deaths left unreferenced and unexplained, perhaps a political past to contend with. Countless different characters all reacting in their own way to the restrictions and oppressions of a life in Amongst Women ruled by the widowed patriarch Moran as he decides to marry again.
Immersion in these novels becomes total as the words wrap themselves around in that lyrical Irish way, the story gently unfolds, yet gentle belies a fury simmering beneath the surface, well-concealed, often unspoken but always evident. Here it is the family's fear of Moran, their endless endeavours to please and appease a man who has ruled with a rod of iron. The atmosphere often so suffocating and laden with trepidation that I was as glad as everyone else in the family to get out in the fields, breathe deeply and cut hay for three days.
'Beneath all differences was the belief that the whole house was essentially one. Together they were one world and could take on the world. Deprived of this sense they were nothing, scattered individual things. They would put up with anything in order to have this sense of belonging. They would never let it go. No one could be allowed to walk out easily.'
The arrival of a step-mother Rose, becomes a catalyst for some free expression and the family moves on in ways previously impossible as Rose soaks up a great deal of Moran's ill-tempered nature,
'His moods were as changeable as the moods in the long day of a child and Rose could follow them now even better than they.'
But there are gaps and silences aplenty and much left unexplained or barely hinted at as I turned the final page. Sometimes we expect answers and reasons for everything in life,
What has happened in Moran's past to make him as he was?
Why did he find men, and his sons in particular so threatening?
Occasionally I caught a glimpse of the man Moran knew he ought to be, or was trying to be
'It was like grasping water to think how quickly the years had passed here. They were nearly gone. It was in the nature of things and yet it brought a sense of betrayal and anger, of never having understood anything much...He continued walking the fields like a man trying to see.'
But sometimes those questions are best left unanswered and I have done a lot of 'well it could've been because of...' thinking since I finished reading thus doubling the impact of a book which could have been five hundred pages long. I wouldn't have complained, but I wouldn't have felt nearly so satisfied with the read.
It is truly impossible to fault John McGahern's writing.