Their visits are marked by ritual
jokes and by the retelling of stories they already know. People
in this novel say: "I’m sure I told it all before."
"Go ahead. There’s nothing new in the world. And we
forget. We’ll hear it again. Clocks strike irregularly and
irrelevantly (`What hurry’s on you?’). It’s hard at first
to work out when this is taking place: the Thirties, Fifties,
Nineties? Then we see the Murphys compulsively watching Blind
Date. Telephone lines are being put in, at last. Over the
border, a few years before, there was the atrocity at
The same few,
well-known characters provide all the local "news".
The district’s notorious, brutal woman-hunter, John Quinn,
gets — and loses — a new wife. Kate’s uncle, a self-made
businessman known as "the Shah", retires, and passes
on his business to his comically unworldly assistant. Bill
Evans, a farm-worker handicapped by his appalling childhood,
acquires the small pleasure of a weekly trip to town in a bus
for the elderly. Jamesie’s brother, who emigrated to England,
disastrously, is laid off from his job at Ford’s Dagenham
plant and threatens to move back to live with the Murphys;
though they care for him, they are aghast at the prospect.
Visitors from London and Dublin trouble and disrupt these quiet
lives. A local builder, a vivid character, fails to finish the
shed roof he is building for the Ruttledges. There are two
cycle frames the lives on the lake: haymaking, market day,
lambing. Food (edibly described), drink, seasons, weather, the
grey heron, the black cat, are re-created continually, different
each time, with intense, eloquent simplicity, as if a painter
were returning over and over to the same scene. The lake, like
Chekhov’s "magic lake" in The Seagull, is the book’s
great character, stirring with its own life and peculiarities:
The surface of the water out from the reeds was alive with
shoals of small fish. There were many swans on the lake. A grey
rowboat was fishing along the far shore. A pair of herons moved
sluggishly through the air between the trees of the island and
Gloria Bog. A light breeze was passing over the sea of pale
sedge like a hand. The blue of the mountain was deeper and
darker than the blue of the lake or the sky.
What happens in
nature is also "news" ."Everything will have
started to grow," says Jamesie at the start of spring. It’s
all going to be very interesting."
this novel looks at first as if it is the antidote to the
darker, more savage "Amongst Women", this is not a
pastoral idyll. Many of the life stories are appalling, like
John Quinn’s revolting treatment of his first wife and her
elderly parents, or Bill Evans’s childhood sufferings at the
hands of the sadistic Christian Brothers. Family affection and
loyalty can only reach so far. Parents are humiliated by their
children, brothers can’t tolerate the idea of living together,
old friends lash out at each other’s faults. Evasions,
compromises and weaknesses are in every life. The Murphys’
gentle manners "dealt in avoidances and obfuscations...
confrontation was avoided whenever possible... it was a language
that hadn’t any simple way of saying no".
just over the border is close; it colours the whole history of
the region. An IRA man, who is also the local auctioneer, is at
work in the town. Every year there is a procession to
commemorate a terrible ambush by the Black and Tans, as the
British army was known in the early decades of the past century,
a story of slaughter and betrayal. It’s a story that gives a
sinister, dark ring to the innocent friendly call of greeting
— "Hel-lo. Hel-lo. Hel-lo" — that opens the novel.
McGahern’s benign alter ego, Joe Ruttledge, speaks out
fiercely against violence towards the end of the book.
suggests to us how this intensely local story, sturdy with work
and things, shining with the visible world, opens out into
larger meanings and ideas. Helping the builder with the shed
roof, he observes "how the rafters frame the sky. How they
make it look more human by reducing the sky, and then the whole
sky grows out from that small space". "As long as they
hold the iron, lad, they’ll do," the builder replies.
Both sides, the philosopher and
the pragmatist, speak with equal force. But this great and
moving novel, which looks so quiet and provincial, opens out
through its small frame to our most troubling and essential
questions. How well do we remember? How do we make our choices
in life? Why do we need repetition? What is to remain of us?
Above all, what can happiness consist in?