Hermione Lee, review of That They May Face the Rising Sun by John McGahern, in The Observer (6 Jan. 2002)

Details: Sub-heading: Ireland is changing fast, but one of its greatest authors writes very slowly. John McGahern’s new novel, That They May Face the Rising Sun, is worth the wait.

It is 12 years since John McGahern’s last novel, Amongst Women, though since then he has published his magnificent Collected Stories. The slow pace of this extraordinary writer seems mirrored in the pace of the novels themselves. In Amongst Women, the life of Moran, angry and restless though he is, repeats itself over and over as he walks his land, ‘field by blind field’; ‘Nothing but years changed in the Great Meadow.’ Now, in That They May Face the Rising Sun, a long title that sounds like an old saying, repetition and slow time are everything.

The setting is one McGahern knows completely. It’s his own place, a remote and sparsely populated corner of County Leitrim, between Carrick-on-Shannon and the border near Enniskillen. There are a few houses by a lake, a bog stretching away to the distant Iron Mountains, a small town with two bars and a roofless abbey with the remains of a monks’ graveyard. It’s described, meticulously and repeatedly, just as it appears in stories like ‘High Ground’ or ‘The Country Funeral’.

Little happens, but everything that happens is ‘news’. ‘Have you any news?’ ‘No news. Came looking for news.’ That’s a running joke between the two couples living on the lake, Joe and Kate Ruttledge, who have lived and worked in England but returned to the place he knows from childhood, and Jamesie and Mary Murphy, natives of this country. ‘I’ve never, never moved from here and I know the whole world,’ Jamesie boasts. There is a strong, humorous affection and dependency between the four, but also reserve and distance.

Their visits are marked by ritual jokes and by the retelling of stories they already know. People in this novel say: ‘I’m sure I told it all before.’ ‘Go ahead. There’s nothing new in the world. And we forget. We’ll hear it again.’ Clocks strike irregularly and irrelevantly (’What hurry’s on you?’). It’s hard at first to work out when this is taking place: the Thirties, Fifties, Nineties? Then we see the Murphys compulsively watching Blind Date. Telephone lines are being put in, at last. Over the border, a few years before, there was the atrocity at Enniskillen.

The same few, well-known characters provide all the local ‘news’. The district’s notorious, brutal woman-hunter, John Quinn, gets - and loses - a new wife. Kate’s uncle, a self-made businessman known as ‘the Shah’, retires, and passes on his business to his comically unworldly assistant. Bill Evans, a farm-worker handicapped by his appalling childhood, acquires the small pleasure of a weekly trip to town in a bus for the elderly. Jamesie’s brother, who emigrated to England, disastrously, is laid off from his job at Ford’s Dagenham plant and threatens to move back to live with the Murphys; though they care for him, they are aghast at the prospect. Visitors from London and Dublin trouble and disrupt these quiet lives. A local builder, a vivid character, fails to finish the shed roof he is building for the Ruttledges. There are two deaths.

A year’s cycle frames the lives on the lake: haymaking, market day, lambing. Food (edibly described), drink, seasons, weather, the grey heron, the black cat, are re-created continually, different each time, with intense, eloquent simplicity, as if a painter were returning over and over to the same scene. The lake, like Chekhov’s ‘magic lake’ in The Seagull, is the book’s great character, stirring with its own life and peculiarities:

‘The surface of the water out from the reeds was alive with shoals of small fish. There were many swans on the lake. A grey rowboat was fishing along the far shore. A pair of herons moved sluggishly through the air between the trees of the island and Gloria Bog. A light breeze was passing over the sea of pale sedge like a hand. The blue of the mountain was deeper and darker than the blue of the lake or the sky.’

What happens in nature is also ‘news’. ‘Everything will have started to grow,’ says Jamesie at the start of spring. ‘It’s all going to be very interesting.’

But although this novel looks at first as if it is the antidote to the darker, more savage Amongst Women, this is not a pastoral idyll. Many of the life stories are appalling, like John Quinn’s revolting treatment of his first wife and her elderly parents, or Bill Evans’s childhood sufferings at the hands of the sadistic Christian Brothers.

Family affection and loyalty can only reach so far. Parents are humiliated by their children, brothers can’t tolerate the idea of living together, old friends lash out at each other’s faults. Evasions, compromises and weaknesses are in every life. The Murphys’ gentle manners ‘dealt in avoidances and obfuscations ... confrontation was avoided whenever possible ... it was a language that hadn’t any simple way of saying no’.

The violence just over the border is close; it colours the whole history of the region. An IRA man, who is also the local auctioneer, is at work in the town. Every year there is a procession to commemorate a terrible ambush by the Black and Tans, a story of slaughter and betrayal. It’s a story that gives a sinister, dark ring to the innocent friendly call of greeting - ‘Hel-lo. Hel-lo. Hel-lo’ - that opens the novel. McGahern’s benign alter ego, Joe Ruttledge, speaks out fiercely against violence towards the end of the book.

And Joe suggests to us how this intensely local story, sturdy with work and things, shining with the visible world, opens out into larger meanings and ideas. Helping the builder with the shed roof, he observes ‘how the rafters frame the sky. How they make it look more human by reducing the sky, and then the whole sky grows out from that small space’. ‘As long as they hold the iron, lad, they’ll do,’ the builder replies.

Both sides, the philosopher and the pragmatist, speak with equal force. But this great and moving novel, which looks so quiet and provincial, opens out through its small frame to our most troubling and essential questions. How well do we remember? How do we make our choices in life? Why do we need repetition? What is to remain of us? Above all, what can happiness consist in?

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