Blasts from the Past: Amongst Women by John McGahern (1990)

Cover image for Amonst Women by John McGahernThis 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 in as many hands as I could.

Amongst Women is the first John McGahern novel I managed to get through and only because I’d been commissioned to write a reading guide for it. I’d tried several others, including The Barracks, but found them just too bleak. You might wonder why I’m including it in this series, then, but the more I thought about it, the more I admired McGahern’s writing until I understood just what all the fuss was about.

Desperate to pull their dying father back from the brink, the Moran sisters decide to recreate Monaghan day, the day of his annual reunion with his old colleague McQuaid, the day when he always seemed at his best. An IRA veteran, so disenchanted that he now welcomes his Protestant neighbours, Moran has long exerted a powerful influence over his daughters, continually drawing them back to the family home despite their departures to Dublin and London and the beginnings of their own families. Not so their elder brother Luke who remains resolutely outside the family circle while their younger brother Michael struggles to free himself. This turbulent family is gently restrained by the presence of Rose, Moran’s second wife whose quiet forbearance has become the mainstay of the sisters’ lives. Written in spare yet sometimes lyrical prose, McGahern’s novel portrays a family tightly and painfully bound to a tyrannical patriarch.

Not my favourite McGahern – that would be That They May Face the Rising Sun – but it’s the one that converted me to his writing and that’s why I wanted to shout about it.

What about you, any blasts from the past you’d like to share?

20 thoughts on “Blasts from the Past: Amongst Women by John McGahern (1990)”

  1. No blast from the past comes immediately to mind, but I did enjoy Amongst Women. It is, as you suggest, a little on the bleak side, but it’s a fascinating portrayal of the tensions caused in a family by an overbearing father.

    1. As I remember, The Barracks is much more bleak, and I suspect that knowing it was based on his own experience didn’t help but I’m glad I persevered with his writing. It’s extraordinarily good.

  2. I agree with you That They May Face the Rising Sun is his best – but in a sense you have to get through the bleakness of J McG’s early work such as The Barracks to appreciate the more benign view of his last novel (and his later short stories)

  3. I listened to an audio of this on Radio 4 fairly recently and really admired the writing – very reminiscent of Colm Toibin and Edna O’Brien, I felt, in terms of both style and substance. Thanks for the tip about That They May Face… I may well take a look at that.

    1. Certainly the Tóibin is an apt comparison, Jacqui. That They May Face… is very different from Amongst Women and much of his earlier work. It’s quietly joyful, as if he’d finally faced down his demons.

  4. He’s my favourite writer. I even went in a pilgrimage to County Leitrim to track down places in his novels. There’s a small library dedicated to him at Lough Rynn Castle Hotel (where I stayed). The Barracks is actually my favourite of his books, but I highly recommend his Memoir, which is essentially a loveletter to his mother who died of breast cancer when he was a young boy.

    1. Thanks for that, Kim. I read his memoir after becoming a fan. It helped explain much of his writing which seems to have acted as a cartharsis for him given That They May Face the Rising Sun.

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