Fiction – paperback; Faber and Faber; 232 pages; 2000.
After years of freedom working as a nurse in war-torn London, Elizabeth Reegan returns to the remote Irish village of her childhood. Here she marries a widower and becomes step-mother to three young children.
The widower is the sergeant of a three-man barracks (station) who longs to escape the police force. Bitter about his job, he runs a nice side business growing and cutting turf and does not seem particularly worried about being caught by the ever-prowling superintendent Quirke, who keeps a watchful eye on him.
In the claustrophobic surrounds of the barracks in which the police live and work, Elizabeth busies herself with the small but vital (and often unnoticed) tasks that are necessary for the smooth running of the household: cooking, cleaning, gardening, stoking the fire and minding the children.
But when she discovers a cyst in her breast, she uses the importance of these tasks as an excuse not to see a doctor. When, at last, she is diagnosed with cancer she finds herself dwelling on the past, finding comfort in the present while trying to contain the “scream in her mouth”.
McGahern’s ability to write so effectively, authentically and eloquently about a middle-aged woman dying of breast cancer is quite stunning. Her interior monologues are heartfelt, swinging between joy and despair. And her metaphysical crisis seems all the more profound because she is unable to share it with anyone, not even the village priest whom she has never liked. As a result she finds herself thinking more and more about a past lover, a young doctor in London, who constantly asked her: “What is all this living and dying about anyway?”
While The Barracks explores some very serious themes — life, death and our search for meaning — McGahern is also a master at the minutiae of daily life, the tedium of housework, the ritual of nightly prayer, and how the changing seasons dictate the timeless rhythms of rural living.
He is also very good at capturing the humour and banter between policeman, using rich and fiercely Irish dialogue that had me laughing out loud more than once or twice.
Overall this is a dark and depressing Catholic novel, but it’s poignancy and intelligence make it one of the most haunting reads you are ever likely to experience.