This week, a new story, best beloved, Irishman John McGahern’s 1990 novel, Amongst Women.
Great choice! Yay!
Thank you. John McGahern is one of my favorite writers—
Probably why you picked him.
—and Amongst Women was the novel that brought him international acclaim. Short listed for the Booker Prize in 1990, it is the story of a large middle-class family in Ireland, the Morans, a family with an ageing and troubled patriarch, Michael, who was a soldier in Ireland’s Civil War in the 1920’s, the war that led to independence from Britain. The present of the story is in the 1960s.
I believe some of John McGahern’s short stories approach the sublime—witness The Wine Breath, and Amongst Women is a fine addition to his oeuvre.
He writes about Ireland, about families, often about a particular family situation that he himself experienced, and which appears in Amongst Women: After the death of his wife, a father raises many children. He is cold and distant, controlling and abusive. After the children reach adolescence, the father remarries, and eventually, the now adult children must deal with his decline and death, just as he must deal with their ascendence and his mortality. It would seem that Mr. McGahern, who died in 2016, had some personal issues he was trying to work out in his writing, as this situation appears again and again. Art imitates life, as it were. I think this phenomenon is common for writers, but it is unusually clear in McGahern’s work.
The title interacts with the story in several ways. Moran lives among women—his wife and daughters—as his sons shun him. However, the title also references the traditional Catholic prayer, the Hail Mary, which contains the line, "blessed art thou amongst women".
HAIL MARY, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.
This prayer is significant as Michael Moran leads the family every day in its recitation, and this recitation serves as a motif throughout the novel.
Another reading would be that whereas in his military days, Moran was among men, now, at the end of his life, he is among women.
The novel’s structure has a present which is not so much centered on particular moments in time but is more of a period of time, as revealed in the very first line—"as he weakened.” It’s not exactly imperfect time, meaning a time that re-occurs, but is not at all a discrete series of moments either. The present of the book is the time of Moran’s decline. It is contrasted with several moves back in time which contextualize what is happening with Moran and his family.
“As he weakened, Moran became afraid of his daughters. This once powerful man was so implanted in their lives that they had never really left Great Meadow, in spite of jobs and marriages and children and houses of their own in Dublin and London. Now they could not let him slip away.”
This memorable first paragraph not only outlines the story, but it also introduces the mysterious narrator. Who, you might ask, is speaking? The first sentence could be from Moran’s perspective; however, the rest of the paragraph could not be. The whole thing seems to be written by some other entity who is telling the story—the storyteller, if you will.
More on this, but the paragraph also raises several questions: Not only who is Moran and who are his daughters, but also why did he become afraid? And why would his daughters not let him slip away? The story provides the answers.
The first section has to do with Moran’s three adult daughters returning to his house, the house they grew up in, in order to, on the face of it, revive Monaghan Day. Monaghan Day—Manchán's Fair Day—was a medieval celebration occurring on February 25. Its significance to the daughters is that it was the day each year that Moran’s old army comrade McQuaid would come by, and the two men would reminisce over their glory days fighting the British. After a falling out with Moran, McQuaid has died, but the daughters hope that having a celebration on this day again will spark some life into their declining father.
“If we could revive Monaghan’s Day for Daddy it could help to start him back to himself. Monaghan Day meant the world to him once.”
Moran is reluctant:
“’What’s that got to do with anything?’ Just as he resented gifts he resented any dredging up of the past. He demanded that the continuing present he felt his life to be should not be shadowed or challenged…He went silent and dark and withdrew into himself, the two thumbs rotating around one another as he sat in the car chair by the fire. A quick glance between Rose (his wife) and the girls was enough…They began to busy themselves cheerfully with preparations for the meal, one or other of them constantly trying to engage Moran with this small thing or that, until he was drawn by their uncanny tact into the general cheerfulness.”
Moran joins in the celebration, brightening as he talks “openly about the war for the first time in their lives.”
“Then in a sudden flash that he was sometimes capable of, he acknowledged his daughters’ continuing goodwill and love, love that usually he seemed inherently unable to return. ‘Tonight we offer up this Holy Rosary for the repose of the soul of James McQuaid.’”
However, the next morning, he frightens everyone by shooting a bird from his front window—a disturbing reminder of his violent past.
The end of this first section contains an important foreshadowing. Moran’s wife, Rose, secretly buys a “brown Franciscan habit” and hides it from Moran. This will be his death shroud.
‘Kay, let’s continue next time.