And so continues my love-affair with Irish fiction.
“John McGahern is the Irish novelist everyone should read”, says Colm Tóibín and, considered by some as, arguably the most important Irish novelist since Samuel Beckett. I’m a little bashful to then admit this is the first McGahern work I have read; it won’t be my last.
McGahern’s work has universally been praised. I often think to myself when I hear or read comments about ‘good writing’; so that is good writing, yes, I can see that, but what makes it good?
Recently, I was contacted by a British writer who wanted me to review her recently finished novel. I assume she had come across this very blog where she obtained my contact details. If I agreed to her request she would send me her eBook free of charge. I did; she did. She had created a publishing house in order to publish and promote her work which I thought was very entrepreneurial of her. I began reading with rosy expectation. It began with a Prologue which I read. I read it again. I then wrote to her to apologise but I was not the reader she was searching for and that I would not be reading the rest. I was polite and blamed myself for my lack of understanding and appreciation.
I had just began reading Amongst Women (1991) and hurried back to it.
What makes writing good is an economy of language: clear and apt sentences of time and place; plain words, character-building skills via close writing1 with evocative dialogue; and the necessary understanding of the importance of the narrative voice. Oh, and a deep understanding and interest in human nature. Of course, grammar and syntax are also important but secondarily so.
John McGahern’s Amongst Women is an example of good writing.
Out of the many false starts her life had made she felt they were witnessing this pure beginning that she would seize and make true. No longer, exposed and vulnerable, would she have to chase and harry after happiness.
You could not successfully trim even one word, nor would you need to add another.
Michael Moran, based largely on McGahern’s own father, is an aging Irish farmer from the north west. He has five children: three daughters, Mona, Shiela, and Maggie – and two sons, the estranged eldest, Luke, and the youngest, Michael, still at school. This is a story about a strict father confident in his position as the head of the house and a God-fearing Catholic. The latter underpins and authorises the former. He is a tyrant, grumpy one minute, then playful, then grumpy again. His women both love and fear him. Words of love and understanding are rare. As a widower he marries a woman, Rose, visiting from Scotland. She succumbed to his handsomeness and learns to tolerate his moods. She, in fact, becomes like another daughter. Moran among his four women.
Irish Catholic rural life, and its decline, at a time of great change, women’s emancipation, the authority of the Church, and the practical considerations church-goers have to make to get on with their lives; these are the themes expertly depicted. There is no narrative curve, no climax, just the rhythms of family life; a McGahern specialty. It is his most famous and best loved work.
Amongst Women was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and won The Irish Times/Aer Lingus Literary Award (1991). It was adapted for television in 1998 and won Best Television Drama at the Irish Film and Television Awards.
All the episodes of the television series can be found on YouTube. Simply search for Amongst Women.
Here is an interview with John McGahern presented by The Howard Poetry and Literary Society of Columbia Maryland, USA in 1993.
You can buy the book in various formats here.
- Close writing (or free indirect discourse) describes a special type of third-person narration that slips in and out of characters’ consciousness. In other words, characters’ thoughts, feelings, and words are filtered through the third-person narrator into the narrative style. The opening few lines of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) by James Joyce is a grand and famous example of close writing.