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Awakened from the Nightmare of History

Book Review by Matt Kelly, March 2002

Review of 'That They May Face the Rising Sun', John McGahern, Faber 16.99

I first encountered John McGahern's novels when, in my early teens, I made my first foray into the adult section of the local library and came across 'The Dark'--a nice, short, approachable novel, so I thought. And it had the word 'fuck' on the first page. I didn't know then that the novel, first published in 1965, had been banned in the Republic of Ireland, and that subsequently McGahern had lost his job as a teacher. It takes us through a childhood where guilt, fear and repression are the Catholic framework of life, and masturbation and thoughts of sex are impossible weights hung round every maturing child's neck.

His new novel is 'That They May Face the Rising Sun'. Here the claustrophobia of the family with its potential for violence and frustration is replaced by adults as free agents--but fixed in the ways of the world they find themselves in. McGahern is highly sensitive to talk and patterns of talk. What often emerges, as in the earlier novels, is an unevenness arising from gender and the problems of sex, swept under so many carpets for so long. Traditional attitudes and patterns of behaviour run along awkward and unstable faultlines.

We are again in a border country. Through the experiences of the Ruttledges, returning to live at the side of a lake in Ireland after many years in London, we encounter an odd and disparate community. There is Jamesie and his wife Mary, whose brother Johnny works in Ford Dagenham and is then made redundant; John Quinn, a local man who is desperate for love, and who whisks his new wife away (to everyone's horror, including hers) for sex during their wedding reception; Jimmy Joe McKiernan, the ex IRA chief of staff who is now a publican, and always has two Special Branch men constantly watching him.

Seamus Deane (author himself of the splendid Derry-set novel 'Reading in the Dark') makes big claims for this novel. He suggests that McGahern has 'awakened from the nightmare of history' and 'given a sense of liberation which is not dependent on flight or emigration or escape'. And, indeed, here the characters do come back to Ireland. However, this is not an imaginary mythical golden age but a real place with real history and people who lived though its best and worst times--the civil war and independence, the poverty of countryside and the city, the religious bigotry as well as growing expression of culture and literature.

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