1001 books, Author, Book review, Faber and Faber, Fiction, Ireland, John McGahern, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Amongst Women’ by John McGahern

AmongstWomen

Fiction – paperback; Faber and Faber; 184  pages; 1991.

Amongst Women by John McGahern opens with Michael Moran, a former solider 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 serves 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 very 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 short-listed for the 1990 Booker Prize.

Author, Book review, England, Fiction, literary fiction, Neil Cross, Publisher, Scribner, Setting

‘Always the Sun’ by Neil Cross

Alwaysthesun

Fiction – paperback; Scribner; 336 pages; 2005.

If I had to sum up Neil Cross’s Always the Sun in two words it would be this: deceptively simple.

For the most part I found that the storyline plodded along ever so slowly. The main character, Sam, especially annoyed me because he seemed so ineffectual. I wanted to grab him by the collar and shake him into life.

Essentially, this is a sad story about a recently widowed man and his young teenage son, Jamie, who have moved house and are settling into a new life in outer suburban London. When Sam discovers that Jamie is skiving off school he becomes paranoid about his son’s welfare: is he fitting in? Is he coping with his mother’s death? Is he being bullied?

But he never seems to DO anything about his parental concerns, leaving Jamie to his own devices without truly getting to the bottom of what’s going on whilst jumping to all kinds of conclusions.

I was so annoyed by Sam’s wimpish character, I was almost tempted to abandon this book. But about three-quarters of the way in it suddenly transformed itself into a harrowing, violent and gruesome story that gripped me in the same way as seeing a car accident hooks the casual observer.

I can’t say I enjoyed Always the Sun: it’s very maudlin and seems to go frustratingly nowhere until about page 300. But when it does take off, boy, does it take off. By the time I’d got to the last page I felt very unsettled and uncomfortable.

Cross has written a deceptive book. On the surface it seems simple, with the prose bare and the plot line almost non-existent. But deep down it poses some alarming moral and ethical questions: what would you do if someone you loved was being hurt by someone else? How far would you be prepared to go?

If nothing else, this book delivers an important message about what happens when you decide to take the law into your own hands. But be warned: this is not a relaxing read.