Takes One To Know One: A Masterful Irish Novelist

Amongst Women
Amongst Women
By John McGahern
Paperback, 192 pages
Penguin

Read An Excerpt

Early in 1989, the Irish novelist John McGahern came to my house in Dublin for supper. He had not published a novel for 10 years. I knew because he had told me in a number of letters that he had been struggling with a novel, and I knew also that he sometimes believed he was finished as a novelist. Over supper we did not mention novels. It was only when he was going that I noticed a large envelope on the hall table. "Have a look at that," he said shyly before leaving my house.

It was a photocopy of a typescript of a new novel, which was called Amongst Women. I spent the next day reading it. I wrote to him then to say that he had, after his long struggle, produced a masterpiece, which seemed effortless, formally perfect and oddly timeless, but also dark. It begins with one of the great opening sentences: "As he weakened, Moran became afraid of his daughters." It portrays a man, a hero of the Irish War of Independence, who gained nothing from the new Irish state except the realization that all he ruled over was his family.

McGahern's version of what love and togetherness does to families is dramatic and stark. Love in Moran's family is filled with bullying and the need to ritualize. The novel moves from scenes where exquisite details are scrutinized and tiny moments given immense power; to sweeping judgments of motive and character, almost as though the book is a cantata, with heartbreaking aria followed by calm recitative.

Colm Toibin i i

Colm Toibin is the author of six novels, including The Blackwater Lightship, The Master and most recently, Brooklyn. hide caption

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Colm Toibin

Colm Toibin is the author of six novels, including The Blackwater Lightship, The Master and most recently, Brooklyn.

At the heart of the book is a brilliant and subversive idea — that Ireland, rather than being a nation or a community, was a place of isolated families, bitter individuals and gnarled relationships. But McGahern is too subtle a novelist to ever mention this idea in the book. Instead he allows it to emerge subtly, slowly and organically, from the deadened rituals in which the characters indulge.

The pacing of the novel is masterly; its rhythms are filled with hidden emotion. The writing is plain, un-showy, the pauses like pauses in a prayer or a ballad. It became, on publication in 1990, the novel by which Irish people measured their world, and then it became famous in England and in France for its beauty, wisdom and calm perfection. It is the sort of book which you can give anyone of any age and know that they will be changed by it. It took 10 years to write; its power will last for many centuries.

You Must Read This is produced by Ellen Silva.

Excerpt: 'Amongst Women'

by John McGahern

Amongst Women
Amongst Women
By John McGahern
Paperback, 192 pages
Penguin

Beginning

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.

"You'll have to shape up, Daddy. You can't go on like this. You're giving us no help. We can't get you better on your own."

"Who cares? Who cares anyhow?"

"We care. We all care very much."

They all came at Christmas. After Christmas, Mona, the one girl who had not married, came every weekend from Dublin. Sometimes Sheila got away from her family to come with her and she drove down for a few hours as well as now and again in the middle of the week. The airfare from London was too expensive for Maggie to come regularly. Michael, their younger brother, had promised to come from London at Easter, but Luke, the eldest, still would not come. All three girls planned to come to revive Monaghan Day. They had to explain to their stepmother Rose what Monaghan Day was. She had never heard of it in all her time in the house.

The end-of-February fair in Mohill was Monaghan Day.

"I'm sure Daddy was far from delighted to see a bottle of whiskey drunk in the house." Rose was doubtful about the whole idea.

"He never minded McQuaid drinking the whiskey. You wouldn't get McQuaid to the house without whiskey."

They clung so tenaciously to the idea that Rose felt she couldn't stand in their way. Moran was not to be told. They wanted it to come as a sudden surprise – jolt. Against all reason they felt it could turn his slow decline around like a Lourd's' miracle. Forgotten was the fearful nail-biting exercise Monaghan Day had always been for the whole house; with distance it had become large, heroic, blood-mystical, something from which the impossible could be snatched.

Maggie flew over from London on the morning of the Day. Mona and Sheila met her at Dublin Airport and the three sisters drove to Great Meadow in Mona's car. They did not hurry. With the years they had drawn closer. Apart, they could be breathtakingly sharp on the others' shortcomings but together their individual selves gathered into something very close to a single presence.

On the tides of Dublin or London they were hardly more than specks of froth but together they were the aristocratic Morans of Great Meadow, a completed world, Moran's daughters. Each scrap of news any one of them had about themselves or their immediate family – child, husband, dog, cat, Bendix dishwasher, a new dress or pair of shoes, the price of every article they bought – was as fascinating to each other as if it were their very own, and any little thing out of Great Meadow was pure binding. Together they were the opposite of women who will nod and nod as they pretend to listen to another, waiting for the first pause of breath to muscle in with the growing pains and glories of their own house, the impatience showing on their faces as they wait. Mullingar was passed and they felt they had hardly said a word to one another. At the hotel in Longford they broke the journey to have tea and sandwiches, and just as the winter light began to fail they were turning in the open gate under the poisonous yew tree.

In spite of their wish to make the visit a surprise, Rose had told Moran they were arriving.

"They must think I'm on the way out."

"The opposite," she reassured. "But they think you should be getting far better."

"How can they all manage to get away together like that?"

"It must have fallen that way. Isn't it worth getting dressed up for once?"

"Who cares now anyhow?" he said automatically but changed into his brown suit. His face was flushed with excitement when they came.

"What did you want to bring anything to me for?" He always disliked having to accept presents.

"You were complaining at Christmas that your hands were always cold, Daddy."

As if to turn attention away from the continual coldness of his hands, he pulled on the gloves comically and pretended to grope about the room with them like a blind man.

"The gloves are only for when you go out. I'm afraid all this excitement is going to your head, Daddy." Rose, laughing, took the gloves away as he pretended to need them to wear about the house.

"I haven't discovered yet what brought out all the troops," he said when the laughing stopped.

"Don't you remember the day it is? Monaghan Day! The day when McQuaid always used to come from the fair in Mohill and we had to make the big tea."

"What's that got to do with anything?" Just as he resented gifts he resented any dredging up of the past. He demanded that the continuing present he felt his life to be should not be shadowed or challenged.

Excerpted from Amongst Women, by John McGahern. Copyright 1991, by John McGahern. Excerpted by permission of Penguin Books. All rights reserved.

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