Lies of Silence
These three novels deal with violence, in one form or another. This is not the only thing they have in common. Indeed, there are more similarities than differences between them. However, one of them, Amongst Women, is utterly unlike the other two in one respect, that it is that rarest of things in contemporary fiction in English, an achieved and almost perfect work.
John McGahern was born in Dublin in 1934, the son of a policeman, and was raised in County Roscommon, near the border with Northern Ireland. After college he took up work as a teacher in Dublin. His first novel, The Barracks, was published in 1963. Two years later his second novel, The Dark, was banned by the Irish Censorship Board, and McGahern was dismissed from his job without official explanation; the word is that the then archibishop of Dublin, a poisonous person called McQuaid, engineered his dismissal, not only because of the banning, but because the author had been married in a registry office and not in a church, and to a foreigner, at that.
Knowledge of these unsavory matters will contribute nothing to an appreciation of McGahern’s art, but may help non-Irish readers to understand something of the country in which Amongst Women is set. McGahern is remarkably free of bitterness toward those who banned his work and drove him from his job and out of Ireland, and regards the affair with some amusement. He has taught abroad, in Britain and at Colgate University in the US, and lives now with his second wife on a farm in County Leitrim, not far from where he was brought up. Amongst Women is his fifth novel, and was on the short list for this year’s Booker Prize; he has also written some of the finest short stories to have come out of modern Ireland.
McGahern works within a narrow compass. The bulk, and perhaps the best, of his writing is set in rural Ireland, among small farmers, village policemen, teachers; even when he moves to the city it is countryfolk he writes about, those who live in digs and dingy flats and go “home” for the weekends; Dublin has many such, on building sites, in factories, in government offices. McGahern understands these people, their loves and longings, their hatreds, their fierce loyalties, and captures in his work the harsh poetry of their lives. He neither romanticizes nor simplifies; his is an immensely subtle and sophisticated art.
While Brian Moore and Ian McEwan are out to tell a story—something which they do with very great skill—McGahern has no plot to speak of, except the “plot” of life itself. Amongst Women is remarkable in that in a very brief span, and without the faintest trace of strain, it manages to portray a particular world. At the center of the book is Michael Moran, patriarch of Great Meadow, a proud, dominating man whose life, as the action opens, is drawing to a close. Around him, lesser …