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John McGahern: That They May Face the Rising Sun (US: By the Lake)

On the face of it, this could be a very boring book. There is no real plot and not much happens. It tells the story of a small Irish community, not far from Northern Ireland. In other hands, it could have ended up as a soap opera. In McGahern’s hands, it is a wonderful story of an integrated community, a small world, if you will, which has its own problems, its own culture and traditions and an abundance of individuals. The focus of the story is Joe and Kate Ruttledge. Joe is from this community and his uncle, owner of the local agricultural supply store and known to everyone as Shah, still lives there. Joe has lived and worked in London but he and Kate have decided to escape the rat race and they run a small farm, supplemented by income from Joe’s writing. Their closest neighbours and closest friends are Jamesie and Mary, parents of Jim and grandparents of Margaret, who both live in Dublin but visit. The close relationship between the two couples – friendly but occasionally hesitant, warm but both with their own, different ways of doing things – is one of the many joys of this novel.

The novel takes place over a period of just more than a year, with Monaghan Day – the day of the cattle market – being the key. The interaction with the other main characters is what makes this novel so special. There is Patrick Ryan, a single man, and determined to remain that way, gruff, but with a heart buried deep down somewhere. John Quinn is only interested in money except when he is interested in sex. As a widower, he asks Joe and Kate to help him find a woman. Kate, in particular, is shocked, and when he finds one through a marriage bureau, things don’t turn out as expected. Bill Evans is part of one of Ireland’s secrets – a young orphan who is farmed out to a family where he is brutally exploited, as others like him, have been. Joe and Kate do what they can to help. The Shah employs Frank Dolan and has done so for many years but they barely speak to one another and never look at one another in the face. When the Shah wants to retire, it makes it a bit complicated if he wants to sell out to Frank. There are also minor characters who still are important to the story. Johnny, Jamesie’s brother, has gone to London to work for Ford. He returns every year to visit and when he loses his job and plans on coming back permanently, it causes problems. There is also the obligatory reference to the Irish Civil War. A key battle took place locally, with many local lads brutally murdered. Jimmy Joe McKiernan, the local IRA head, is determined that it won’t be forgotten.

Reading this and McGahern’s other novels, you cannot help but accept that he is one of the major authors of recent years. His skill in making all the characters living people and showing the sense of a vibrant, changing community is rare in contemporary writers. Nothing much happens but it doesn’t need to with McGahern writing about it.

Publishing history

First published in 2002 by Faber & Faber