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That They May Face The Rising Sun

By John McGahern
Published by Faber & Faber

John McGahern’s new novel has been over ten years in gestation, his first since 1990’s Amongst Women. Apparently, the manuscript was at one stage 1500 pages long, and was cut back and refined. In a sense, when a major writer has spent so long on a work, any 600 or even 1000 word review, soon after publication, after one reading, can only be bathetic. How can one do justice to the subtleties involved, or even give a hint of the richness and fullness contained within these covers?
Perhaps the first thing to say is that very little happens; and yet, everything happens. There is little conventional plot or character development, but stories get told, characters are delineated. The rhythm of the prose takes its beat from the natural world, the changing seasons around a lake in an unspecified border county, sometime in the late ‘80s or early ‘90s. There are recurring references to the heron on the lake, the alder tree outside the front door, and episodes of saving the hay, lambing and bringing cattle to market. But if this is an essay in that almost forgotten genre, the pastoral, it is also an elegy for an entire way of life, a way of being and behaving, a mode of social structure and organisation.

 

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Everything revolves around Kate and Joe Ruttledge, a local man who has returned from London with his wife, having bought a small farm, supplementing his income with some freelance advertising copywriting as well. There is a sense in which Ruttledge is the McGahern/writer figure. Then there are their close friends and neighbours, Jamesie and Mary, the former a gossipy and gabby fund of anecdote and local lore, always on the lookout for news. The affection which grows between these four is gentle yet palpable. Many other characters make appearances every so often: The Shah, Ruttledge’s rich, single, teetotal, entrepreneurial uncle, who comes to the Ruttledges for dinner every Sunday; Frank Dolan, the employee with whom he has a strange, uncommunicative relationship, who eventually takes over the business when the Shah retires, despite committing the faux pas of being ‘the man who swore to do less’ at a interview for a bank loan; Monica, the Shah’s widowed sister; the loquacious, libidinous but ultimately viciously misogynist John Quinn, whose ‘singsonging cajolery’ is a front for actions that are entirely self-serving; Johnny, Jamesie’s brother who emigrated to London many years before - not because he had to, like the rest of the country, but to follow a hopeless love – and wound up a rootless bachelor, working at Ford’s in Dagenham; Jimmy Joe McKiernan, the auctioneer, undertaker, and IRA ringleader; Patrick Ryan, an asexual jack-of-all trades, quick to take offence, slow to finish a job; the brutalised Bill Evans, a victim of the harsh, now extinct system of hiring out orphans as cheap farm labour to wealthy landowners, or putting them to serve at tables in seminaries, after they’d had a spell with ‘the Brothers’; Fr Conroy, the decent parish priest who fixes him up with sheltered accommodation; and Jamesie and Mary’s clever civil servant son, Jim, and his self-important wife Lucy, and their children.
The thing is, by most normal criteria, all this just shouldn’t work. For people of my generation, particularly those raised in cities, there can arise what has come to be known as ‘a credibility gap’ with McGahern, perhaps not so much with the near existential The Pornographer, but certainly with the family history of Amongst Women. Do, or did (the difference is crucial), people really behave like that? In the latter novel, the patriarchal old republican Moran may be a monster, but one is left wondering what would have happened if one of his children had simply tweaked him on the nose, or told him to stop being such an awful auld bollacks. Hey presto, the story would have fallen apart, or got more interesting. But that isn’t McGahern’s way, and maybe it is not the way of the people he writes about either. With That They May Face The Rising Sun, just when you think it’s getting a bit too twee and folksy and country cute, and even bordering on boring, along comes another understated gem in the interaction between characters, or a word or phrase or paragraph of great power, or a description to die for. The impeccable gift he has of orchestrating conversation between people is perhaps his greatest compositional resource. For, what’s finally important in fiction, far more important that ideas or wit or style or knowledge or theories, and just as important as vision, are moments of emotional truth. They are the reason why we read. We are wary of them, of course, and shy away from them, because they can so easily come out as kitsch or cliché. Who wants second-hand emotions? Far worse than worn out thoughts. But McGahern pulls it off, every time, without a false note or jarring moment. This is especially noticeable in scenes like the laying out of Johnny, who dies suddenly while home on holiday from England; or in the digging of his grave, which gives the book its title. The pagan is older than the Christian, and he must be buried with his head to the west, so that he may face the rising sun in the east. ‘We look to the resurrection of the dead.’ There are even intimations of the coming of modernity, with the telegraph polls spoiling the view, so that every house can have a telephone. The description of Jamesie and Mary watching Blind Date on TV is frankly amusing, showing that some of these old hicks from the sticks might be more tuned in than you’d give them credit for. The last sentence, in a work of exceptional prose, read: ‘At the porch, before entering the house, they both (Joe and Kate) turned to look back across the lake, even though they knew that both Jamesie and Mary had long since disappeared from the sky.’ I owe it to my own parents, and others of their dead and dying generation, to praise this book.
Masterpieces do not come along every year, or even every decade. But it is not besmirching through exaggeration that overused and so degraded term to apply it here. I bow, awestruck, before such an achievement.

First published in Books Ireland

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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