Tag Archives: Guardian’s 100 Best Novels

That They May Face the Rising Sun by John McGahern

John McGahern is another great Irish writer. Or to put it another way – John McGahern is great writer. That They May Face the Rising Sun was his last novel, published in 2002. John McGahern (1934 – 2006) wrote 6 novels, numerous short stories and radio plays and a memoir, called Memoir. That They May Face the Rising Sun was the Irish Novel of the Year in 2003. Its title in the US is By The Lake.

If you haven’t yet read his novels I urge you to start now.

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The Story

In beautiful slow prose, That They May Face the Rising Sun follows a rural community over one year, through the farming activities and social lives of the small group of men and women. John McGahern once said that ‘the ordinary fascinates me’, and that ‘the ordinary is the most precious thing in life’. He writes about the ordinary in a way that is deeply moving.

Joe and Kate Ruttledge have come to live on a smallholding near the lake. They had met and married in London where they worked together in an advertising agency. Joe is connected to the place through his childhood and his uncle, the Shah. In a series of scenes the reader meets their neighbours. With Jamsie and his wife Mary they share a friendship and smallholding activities. Jamsie is very newsie (a gossip I guess). Bill Evans was badly treated as an orphan and more or less given into slavery, which he eventually escapes. He is traumatised and unable to manage any idea of the past or the future. The people who know him care for him and provide him with a limited number of smokes and drinks. Then there is John Quinn, who loves women, and is brazen about his conquests, and abusive too. Patrick Ryan is the ever-absent builder. The Shah despite being unable to read or write has made a fortune for himself. He never speaks to his manager, but sells the business to him when he retires, lending him the money to do it and carrying on working there. He is something of a wise uncle to Joe, but also depends upon his nephew to make sense of the world and his negotiations with it. There are cats and dogs and a heron

The narrative emerges through a number of scenes in the year. It opens with Jonny’s annual visit from England (where so many went in the 70s, including John McGahern), and concludes with his death the following year and a moving description of the community that assembles to do the right thing at his death. Throughout this novel neighbours share tasks, do favours, tell stories, drink together and eat sandwiches. It’s peaceable, atmospheric, slow and very moving.

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The style

The nature writing is also wonderful, describing what you see in a rural setting as the year follows its cycle.

September and October were lovely months, the summer ended, winter not yet in. The cattle and sheep were still out on grass, the leaves turning.

The little vetch pods on the bank turned black. Along the shore a blue bloom came on the sloes. The blackberries moulded and went unpicked, the briar leaves changed into browns and reds and yellows in the low hedges, against which the pheasant could walk unnoticed. Plums and apples and pears were picked and stored or given around to neighbours or made into preserves in the big brass pot. Honey was taken from the hives, the bees fed melted sugar. For a few brilliant days the rowan berries were a shining red-orange in the light from the water, and then each tree became a noisy infestation of small birds as it trembled with greedy clamouring life until it was stripped clean. Jamsie arrived with sacks of vegetables and was given whatever he would take in return. (191)

I love the way the domestic activities of the inhabitants of the lakeshore are included in this description.

Many of the scenes are carried forward through the dialogue, which catches the humour and pain of the neighbours. Irish history is present through recollections of the characters, none so vivid as the ambush by the Tans of a group of republicans from Jamsie’s past. And so we learn on p255 the fearful origin of Jamsie’s characteristic greeting first heard on the opening page: ‘Hel-lo … hel-lo … hel-lo.’ Such details link the scenes over and over.

For a taste of the dialogue, here is an early excerpt, when Bill Evans, much abused and exploited on the farm where he lives, calls in hungry at the Ruttledge house. Joe tells him,

‘You’re welcome to anything in the house but there isn’t even bread. I was waiting till tonight to go to the village.’

‘Haven’t you spuds?’

‘Plenty.’ He hadn’t thought of them as an offering.

‘Quick, Joe. Put them on.’

A pot of water was set to boil. The potatoes were washed. ‘How many?’

‘More. More.’

His eyes glittered on the pot as he waited, willing them to a boil. Fourteen potatoes were put into the pot. He ate all of them, even the skins, with salt and butter, and emptied the large jug of milk. ‘God, I feel all roly-poly now,’ he said with deep contentment as he moved back to the ease of the white rocking chair. ‘Do you have any fags?’ (10)

That They May Face the Rising Sun by John McGahern, published by Faber & Faber in 2002. 314 pp

Here are two other recommended books by John McGahern: The Barracks (1963), Amongst Women (1990).

The Barracks by John McGahern

This is a much earlier novel, published in 1963. It is set in an Irish Garda Barracks just after the Second World War. Elizabeth is married to the sergeant, and the novel follows her decline through cancer into death, as she wonders about her life, its meaning purpose and pleasures. The novel ends as it began in the kitchen, with the stepchildren, but she is no longer with them.

There are some acute observations about how people behave in groups, how people relate badly to each other, how people live intimate lives without any connection. In common with That They May Face the Rising Sun, its sense of place is acute. He describes the seasons in the village, the people, their concerns, the rituals of the church with deep knowledge and affection.

The Barracks by John McGahern published by Faber & Faber in 1963.

Amongst Women by John McGahern (1990)

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Moran was once a feared IRA fighter in the 1920s, but the story concerns his attempt to defend himself in the 50s and 60s when Ireland and the troubles are history. His relationship with his family and the way in which he communicates with his daughters are the themes of this novel. Moran is a fierce and mistaken old man, proud, strict, with clear principles, but unsociable … what a character sketch. We have little of description, but as with The Barracks a small world is brilliantly evoked.

Amongst Women was no 97 on the Guardian’s 100 Best Novels list. It was published by Faber & Faber in 1990.


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