Sunday, August 08, 2010

the last book I read

Amongst Women by John McGahern.

Moran is an ex-IRA soldier (who served in the Irish Civil War, we're invited to assume) now settled into a cantankerous middle-to-old age on the family farm near the Northern Irish border (here, or possibly here). Remarried late in life to his second wife, Rose, he lives at the farm with his three daughters Mona, Maggie and Sheila and son Michael, elder son Luke having decamped to London before the novel starts.

Your classic Celtic patriarchal tyrant, Moran is simultaneously obsessed with his and the family's appearance and position within the close-knit local community, and in a state of permanent disappointment with his family in private, their failure to conform to his notions (ingrained in him by his military service no doubt) of appropriate respect, obedience, decorum, tidiness and religious observance (the book's title being a nod to the Hail Mary) invoking a near-permanent state of frustrated rage. As with any abusive relationship where the protagonists are yoked together by a collective mutual dependency this results in a situation where the objects of his ire (Rose and the children) are pathetically grateful for the occasional kind word of acknowledgement or praise.

Eventually, as the girls move through their teens into adulthood, they drift off to Dublin and jobs and marriage, and Michael (the youngest) is left in the house with just his father and step-mother for company. His separation is more troubled, a physical brawl with his father leading to his running away to Dublin and thence (with some collusion from the girls) to London.

So a bog-standard bog-trotting Irish family saga, then, complete with rain and potatoes and Guinness and misery. Well, no, it's not quite like that. Moran's IRA background isn't as much of a feature as you might think (nor indeed as much as the blurb on the back of my Faber paperback edition implies), it really just provides a bit of context for the I-fought-in-two-world-wars-so-you-could-have-those-Rice-Krispies parental annoyance at the kids' lack of appropriate deference and respect. It's also made quite clear early on that Moran doesn't touch alcohol, so there's no suggestion of the whiskey-fuelled Oi'll-morder-de-pair-o-yez red mist as explanation or excuse for his actions (there's also no suggestion of any physical violence against Rose or the girls). It's really an exploration of some pretty universal themes (explored in a gentler and less aggressively Celtic way in The Levels, among other places) of parents resenting the economic, social and sexual freedoms available to their children (and unavailable to them), the grinding teenage resentment of one's parents combined with the continuing dependence upon them for food, shelter and other basic stuff, the necessity eventually to escape one's parents in order to start liking them again and the general trauma involved all round in doing so. The point about Ireland is that the stifling social norms described here persisted for quite a bit longer than elsewhere in the UK (and probably continue to do so in more rural areas) - the novel is very non-specific about when it's set, but if we're to assume Moran was a Civil War soldier (and not implausibly ancient when he eventually dies at the end) then the 1960s would seem sbout right.

So while the jacket blurb and the whacking great Irish tricolour on the front cover might suggest something impenetrably dry and political, it's actually a pretty intimate family saga. Like some other slim volumes in this series, all the authorial sweat that was surely expended to whittle it down to 180-odd economically-written pages is invisible to the reader. And only those raised by wolves would fail to nod in recognition at some aspects of the picture of family life portrayed here.

And now the prizegiving formalities: Amongst Women was nominated for the Booker Prize in 1990, as was The Gate Of Angels (AS Byatt's Possession won that year), it also won the Irish Times/Aer Lingus Literary Award and the Guinness Peat Aviation Award, the prizegiving ceremony for which presumably involves the winning author being presented with a pint of Guinness, into which someone then drops a lump of peat from a passing aeroplane.

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