Amongst Women by John McGahern (1990) Faber and Faber (1991) 184 pp
From blogging friends, I’ve heard a lot of good things about John McGahern, and I’d marked him as an author to read, anticipating a good relationship. However, when KevinfromCanada made an aside that compared McGahern to John Williams I knew I needed to get serious. Unfortunately, many of his works are out of print in the United States, including his Booker finalist Amongst Women. Many say this is his masterpiece (though I shouldn’t worry that I’ll be disappointed by the rest of his work), so why isn’t it available here? Certainly not because it’s no good as that is not even close to the case.
When the book opens, we meet the man who is amongst women. Moran is a dying patriarch of a close Irish family that consists of three daughters and Rose, his relatively young wife, their stepmother. Actually, Moran also has two sons, but we’ll get to them momentarily. Also, “close” might be a misleading adjective when describing this family, however technically accurate; “close” might be better if modified by “suffocatingly,” though that might go too far the other direction, cloaking the tenderness that has been perversely cultivated as Moran has forced his children to depend on him and shun the world. In just the first few lines McGahern gives a remarkable glimpse into the family dynamics:
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.
In their effort to rejuvenate their ailing father, the daughters attempt to recreate “Monaghan Day,” an annual event their father once enjoyed. On Monaghan Day, Moran’s friend McQuaid would visit, and they’d reminisce about their days in the Irish Republican Army during the 1920s. It’s been years since the last Monaghan Day, and it ended badly when McQuaid simply got up and walked out, never to return. However well meant, the daughters’ attempt to revive their father’s brighter past is “a gesture as weak as a couple who marry in order to try to retrieve a lost relationship, the mind having changed the hard actual fact into what was comfortable to feel.” At this point, the narrative treads back to the last Monaghan Day, some decades in the past. We don’t get to the ailing Moran again until the end of the book.
On the last Monaghan Day, Moran’s daughters were teenagers. We learn that Moran’s first wife had already died, but he was not yet married to Rose. His oldest son has already left for England, promising never to return to Moran’s house. McQuaid arrives. At one time Moran held some authority over McQuaid due to their positions in the Republican Army. Now, though, McQuaid is more successful and more powerful. There is an argument, and McQuaid leaves. In some ways, at this point Moran retreats even further into “that larger version of himself,” his family. And that’s too bad for his family, though things were already bad enough that his oldest son has abandoned him.
But soon an outsider comes in. Rose Brady works at the post office and is infatuated with Moran, though he’s slow on the uptake. She sympathizes with him and wants to be there to protect and serve him. Her tendency to overlook his faults — no, to make his faults his strengths — is one of the most fascinating and frustrating aspects of the novel. For example, she can recognize this when she first starts to meet the two youngest daughters:
Often when talking with the girls she had noticed that whenever Moran entered the room silence and deadness would fall on them; and if he were eating alone or working in the room — setting the teeth of a saw, putting a handle in a broken spade on a wet day, taking apart the lighting plant that never seemed to run properly for long — they always tried to slip away. If they had to stay they moved about the place like shadows. Only when they dropped or rattled something, the startled way they would look towards Moran, did the nervous tension of what it took to glide about so silently show. Rose had noticed this and she had put it down to awe and respect in which the man she so loved was held, and she was loath to see differently now.
Moran and Rose marry, and the bulk of the novel is the years between that marriage and the day the daughters try to revive Monaghan Day as Moran lies dying. It is a brutal look at how a family can believe in the strength of the family bonds even when those bonds are tied too tightly by a mean patriarch. It’s not a pretty picture, and one does not admire them for keeping the bonds strong; rather, one cheers when the youngest son follows the older, and one hopes some of the girls will do the same. Alas, from the first line, we know the daughters never could quite get away and are now trying to help the old man to survive.
It’s a complex portrait because the emotions involved seem irrational and contradictory. And, for better or for worse (for the better, is my argument), McGahern doesn’t try to explain to us the reasons behind it all. For example, how could Rose fall in love with Moran? I don’t know, but I’ve seen similar situations develop among people I know personally. Also never fully explained is why Moran is such a bully of a man. McGahern just presents the emotions as they come, without trying to excuse them or help them make sense, which makes it feel, to me, all the more genuine, as if to explain if further would simplify the elements involved. The result is a fine novel indeed.