Blasts from the Past: That They May Face the Rising Sun by John McGahern (2001)

Cover imageThis is the latest in a series of occasional posts featuring books I read years ago about which I was wildly enthusiastic at the time, wanting to press a copy into as many hands as I could.

Last year Cathy from 746 Books was kind enough to ask me to take part in her Books that Built the Blogger series. She’d just kicked off Reading Ireland month and asked me for my favourite Irish novel, a tough question if ever there was one – not a case of where to start but where to stop. The one that finally topped my list was John McGahern’s That They May Face the Rising Sun which has the feel of a man who has come to terms with his troubled past, a past stitched through McGahern’s earlier, bleaker novels as his autobiography makes clear. Somehow that feels appropriate for New Year’s Day.

Leaving their bustling London life behind, Joe and Kate Ruttledge have settled in a small lakeside community in Ireland. They have a farm, subsidised by Joe’s writing, and their life follows a slow, gentle rhythm, in tune with the seasons. The small dramas and quiet satisfactions of everyday life fill their world: visits from their neighbour and dear friend the incorrigibly inquisitive Jamesie, lambing and selling their calves at the cattle mart, and visits to town to pick up supplies and local news. McGahern’s gentle, almost wistful, novel traces a year in the Ruttledges’ lives, introducing perceptively drawn and wonderfully memorable characters while painting quietly restrained yet evocative word pictures of a world in which each small change delicately redistributes the balance of the whole.

McGahern’s writing has a very precise character, the product of the meticulous paring down of his prose out of which the occasional lyrical sentence shines brightly. His carefully crafted novels perfectly capture both place and time. And if I haven’t convinced you to read his work perhaps Colm Tóibín’s description of McGahern as ‘the Irish novelist everyone should read’ will.

You can find more posts like this here.

12 thoughts on “Blasts from the Past: That They May Face the Rising Sun by John McGahern (2001)”

  1. Hooray! He’s my favourite Irish novelist. I became so obsessed with him I even went to Co. Leitrim where he lived to visit some of the sites he writes about including the location of the church mentioned in this novel. We stayed in an amazing hotel that has a library (of his books) named after him. And in the nearest town there’s a bench dedicated to him, with lines from this book engraved on the pavement. I also visited his grave, where he is buried alongside his beloved mother.

    1. That sounds like a literary pilgramage! His writing is suberb, isn’t it? The contrast between the bleakness of novels like The Barracks and this one is striking. It has a sense of quiet joy about it.

      1. Oh yes, a proper literary pilgrimage. I even sought out the police barracks at Cootehall which is where he lived as a child and was central to his first novel The Barracks. That book really broke my heart.

          1. Oh this grabbed my attention… I’ve never read him but have Amongst Women on my wish list (can’t remember who recommended that one) Now wondering if this is a better one to introduce me?

  2. robinandian2013

    So glad to see your promotion of this exquisite novel. His other novels are darker and more grim, but this one is full of sunshine, warmth, friendship and humour. It really does stand out.

  3. inthemistandrain

    Thank you, I’m going to see if I can get a copy from the library, otherwise I’ll buy. I’ve only read Amongst Women and loved it. Ireland has produced some really great writers.

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