Amongst Women by John McGahern
Amongst Women by John McGahern is a novel published in the year 1990, shortlisted for the Booker Prize and has come to be recognised as one of the great Irish novels of our time. In 2006, Observer compiled a list of the greatest novels of the last twenty-five produced from Commonwealth countries, Amongst Women ranked joint eighth alongside The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro, That They May Face the Rising Sun by John McGahern once again. John McGahern was the only author to have a second book on that list alongside the great writer Kazuo Ishiguro. The writings of these authors have been significantly , but there are striking similarities, which I will come back to later. Although, these novels deserve to be higher on the list because I think they are better written than Midnights Children by Salman Rushdie, which is an excellent novel by any standard, nonetheless.
The novel has a simple plot encompassing a small cast of characters, of which most are women. Moran is a father who has a past in IRA as a guerrilla fighter and is struggling to come to terms with the hardness and ruthlessness of the past, and the changing world of the present. He is getting old and time is passing away. The writer keeps a close focus on the nature of the house in which they live. The house, as in all our lives, occupies a significant space in the novel itself, as a centre of the universe for the characters, a place where they feel themselves and cut off from the miseries of the outside world. I would go as far as to say that John McGahern subtly equals Naipaul’s portrayal of the changing moods of the house and the family, which is very well manifest in A House for Mr Biswas. A short novel, amounting to 180 pages yet it never loses the sense of space and time in the compactness of its physical boundaries. His writing only has boundaries in its physical landscape, but traverses, continents in its portrayal of the human heart. The house surrounded by the fields, the changing seasons, the grass and the machinery, the entry and exit of its residents, the loneliness and isolation, the coming together and sense of safety in grouping.
This is the first John McGahern novel I have read, and I wish to read more of his work. His prose is unadorned, precise and straightforward yet not suffocated. It allows space to breathe; the subtle moments form the sensitivity of the novel and nothing much happens in the novel, as in life. It flows naturally from one place to another, adding one bit of meaning to another bit of meaning. There is no external force of the author, no physical strain of his workings but the author is omnipresent, everywhere warming the landscape with his words. The writing does not ponder upon the unnecessary elements, it takes you right amidst a portion of their lives when things are changing themselves naturally. For example, there are no direct references to Moran’s first wife. There is not a revelation of the past, but there is a sense of time gone by and the huge impact of the past on McGahern’s authentic characters. You get to see the product of the metamorphosis but never the beginning of it.
Every character is endearing, dark and compassionate, constantly ever-changing as the sudden transformations in the physical landscape: Moran, Rose, Mona, Sheila, Maggie, Luke and Michael. There is a strange reminiscence of Virginia Woolf in this novel. The characters, the weather, the point of view, the small things inside the house are shown in varying lights as the novel progresses as in great Woolf novels such as Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse. The small flashes of innocence, darkness, melancholy, compassion come and go as the rain, the winter, the spring, and the summer.
I am coming to the point of similarities between Kazuo Ishiguro and John McGahern. Both writers differ in the subjects and objects they choose to write about. Ishiguro rarely focuses on farming whereas McGahern’s characters are a reflection of the physical agrarian landscape. Ishiguro never focuses on families, yet McGahern digs deeper into them to reveal the roots of Irish life. All Ishiguro novels are written in first-person and are most focused on one character (The Remains of the Day, An Artist of the Floating World) or two-three characters (The Unconsoled, Never Let Me Go) whereas John McGahern’s Amongst Women is written in third person limited narration. Ishiguro equals to Kafka, Proust, and Jane Austen whereas McGahern is a mixture of Samuel Beckett and Virginia Woolf. Nonetheless, there is still a point where these two authors come together in their writing style and their portrayal of characters. They are a part of the oeuvre of writing that follows the tradition of simple, short and exact writing than taking part in a sort of over-aesthetic battle of words, as most of their contemporaries (Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy, Zadie Smith, John Banville, Julian Barnes, Philip Roth, Cormac McCarthy, David Foster Wallace). There writing goes back to the softness of the melody and not to the jaggedness of it. Underneath, there is a sheer amount of human force to give meaning to the simplicity of words rather than excessively tongue-twisting arrogant language to earn acclaim. Do not get me wrong, I love Midnight’s Children, The God of Small Things, American Pastoral, Blood Meridian, The Sense of an Ending, but we are losing the easiness and fluidity of great prose writers like Ishiguro, Coetzee, McGahern, Naipaul.
Ishiguro’s and McGahern’s characters are real; their landscape is tangible, physical and fecund, the language flows like a river hiding underneath its bends unparalleled depth and magic. They write about the most pessimistic and bleak realities yet embed in them a sense of humour and happiness. For instance, Never Let Me Go exposes some of the most terrifying human realities but manages to give its reader a timeless sense of beauty and human truth. In Amongst Women, the characters laugh, smile, revel in their naughtiness amidst the dark clouds hovering above them. This is the writing that breathes life into the dying fiction, and we need more voices like them to keep the blood flowing in the veins of prose.
Amongst Women is one of the few triumphs of fiction that achieves greatness through its simplicity and original human voice. It is a book of a lifetime, go read it!