Fiction – paperback; Faber and Faber; 184 pages; 1991.
Amongst Women by John McGahern opens with Michael Moran, a former soldier in the Irish War of Independence, holed up at home in his dying days, surrounded by his three adult daughters who want him to “shape up” and “get better”.
“Who cares? Who cares anyhow?” he says, when they fuss over him, willing him “not to slip away”. This one statement — the fourth sentence in the book — reveals so much about Moran’s character that it seems pointless to say much more about him, other than he is probably the most annoyingly cantankerous and gruff literary character I’ve had the pleasure of “meeting” for a long time.
Angry, stubborn and strong-willed, he rules his family with an alarming and complicated mix of brutality and tenderness.
A strong believer in the “family that prays together stays together”, he fails to understand why all his children — two sons and three daughters — flee the family home at the first opportunity to live in Dublin or London. Even when they return to visit him on and off over the years, his manner and inability to welcome them with open arms only serve to drive them further away.
Essentially this is a wonderfully realised portrait of an Irish Catholic family headed by a widowed father who marries a much younger woman (their non-traditional romance is beautifully written) and then sets about manipulating his children using violence, emotional blackmail and an obstinate refusal to do anything that is not on his own terms.
McGahern’s writing, restrained and free from melodrama, depicts Moran as all-too-human, someone who is so emotionally starved that you can feel nothing but pity for him. It treads a careful line between cold fury and utter despair.
Despite the fact that not much happens plot-wise — this is a character-driven story after all — the tension that brims throughout makes you keep turning the pages. Amongst Women is a quick read, but it is also a profoundly moving one that lingers in the mind long after you reach the somewhat depressing conclusion.
Amongst Women won the 1990 Irish Times-Aer Lingus Irish Literature Prize for Fiction and was shortlisted for the 1990 Booker Prize.
‘Amongst Women’, by John McGahern, first published in 1990, is listed in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, where it describes the novel as an “expression of a postcolonial condition, generational change, and shifting gender relations in rural Catholic Ireland”.