Reviewed by James Murray-White
This is a magnificently rich set of 29 stories from a master writer. McGahern was short-listed for the Booker prize for his novel Amongst Women, but is equally known for short stories, and this collected works, edited and added to by McGahern shortly before his death, is the perfect jumping-in place for a reader. On my 2nd and 3rd readings of this collection, new subtleties caught me and took my part-Irish breath away.
Two stories, Creatures of the Earth and Love of the World, were added to this revised edition by McGahern, and upon a first reading these seem to have more visceral power than the others; the first making me cringe at a moment of raw cruelty, and the second charting the downward spiral of a marriage ending in tragedy, only to be redeemed by the enlightenment of a supporting character at the end.
Some of the stories, such as Parachutes, Bank Holiday, and Sierra Leone deal with characters wandering in and out of love affairs, wandering around cities, searching for something but never quite finding what it is they seek. The central character in Sierra Leone falls for the mistress of a shady politician, and loses all around him, without holding on to any reason or sense of self: “And yet her absence was certainly less painful than the responsibility of a life together. But what of love? Love flies out of the window, I had heard them say.”
These city-based stories are in marked contrast to the rural ones, which are peopled with grounded characters living their often hard lives, either with dignity and quiet appreciation, such as The Colonel and Mrs Sinclair in Oldfashioned, or muddled and veering toward deceit, such as Jimmy in The Creamery Manager. Several of the stories are set in Dublin, and one, Hearts of Oak and Bellies of Brass, involves a group of Irish labourers working in England, and the devilment that get up to because of their boredom, but the bulk of the stories have a rural setting – down the Irish boreens (lanes) in cottages, and public houses. For someone who has never visited the magical emerald Isle, some of the stories might take a while to uncover, but simply ‘pastoral’ they are not.
In Crossing the Line McGahern draws on his own experience of being a teacher in a rural school, and charts the petty hostilities and politics that confront a new teacher as he arrives and tries to find his place. The story ends with him being advised to fix upon a particular local woman, and having received spiritual counsel from a priest who judges people and their moral character by "how much they like the stirabout (porridge)"!
The Recruiting Officer is a sad tale, looking at the linkage between religion, education and social power in Ireland – how all persuasive it is, and sometimes, how damaging. An unfulfilled teacher looks back at his life in a rural backwater, where he has become, as he describes himself; “a clock-watcher”, instead of the absorbed educator he once aspired to. The visit of a Christian Brother to "recruit" children for the church, and the violent cruelty of the all-powerful Canon to a child who transgressed, make the teacher, in a single hour, look back at his own tangling with church authority.
There is a subtle eye at work here. McGahern observes life and translates it into his fiction. It is filled with detail and underpinned with gravity. Why We Are Here is a strange little piece that exemplifies human deceits and rural pettiness: the two characters talk at deliberate cross purposes to prove superiority, and in Strandhill, The Sea, a narrator finds some small pleasure in observing the antics during a wet, dull night in a seaside boarding house. McGahern thrives on the small neuroses of mankind, and lets them unfold as narrative that drives his stories along.
I have been a fan of the writer’s for many years, since I first lived in rural Ireland, not far from McGahern’s home in County Leitrim. I was involved in a small way in the filming of his story Korea (included here) that was filmed on a lake in County Cavan. A father quietly plots for his son to join the American army, in order for himself to live on the son’s monthly pay, and the large death insurance if the son dies in combat. This masterly tale of deceit and uncovering, all mixed up within the father/son relationship, largely takes place on a rowing boat on a rural lake, while the two fish for eels, early in the morning as the mist rolls over them.
Tension between rural and city life: those who have never moved to a city eye city dwellers with a blend of jealousy and pity, and McGahern's Dublin characters look down upon their country brethren, but all aspire to the simplicity of their lives.
In this case, the Irish phrase, "may the road rise to meet you" does hold true. McGahern lets the road rise, often very slowly and subtly, and the road, or location, and its vast cast of characters stuffed full of foibles all rise to snare you in. It is little wonder I arrived free floating in Ireland once, and only left 5 years later. These are stories of depth and insight as they catch you and work their slow unravelling in your imagination.
Publication Date: 1997 (revised 2006)
First collection?: No
Author bio: John McGahern(1934-2006) was born and lived in the Republic of Ireland. He trained as a primary school teacher, before becoming a full-time writer, and wrote 6 acclaimed novels and 4 collections of short stories, as well as an autobiography. He travelled and taught extensively, and won many awards for his writing.
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