Paved with Good Intentions

This is my review of Amongst Women by John McGahern.

Aloof and uncompromising, Moran is disappointed with the independent Ireland for which he has fought, and vents his frustration in an ongoing battle to dominate his children, compliant second wife Rose and even his old friend McQuaid who shares his memories of the past. Perhaps Moran only felt alive in his days as a guerrilla leader, perhaps he was traumatised by some of the brutality in which he was caught up.

Although this is one of those tales in which not much happens, I was soon hooked by McGahern's spare prose and subtle ability to convey a sense of place and of human relationships as he describes in minute detail the nuances of family relationships in the rural Ireland of around 1960. On the one hand, I was repelled by the narrow restrictions, the over-concern with convention and religious rituals. On the other, McGahern makes us aware of the value of family ties, working together on the land, taking pleasure in the small simple things of life, enjoying the familiarity and beauty of the farmland. All this is made more poignant by our knowledge of the transience of this way of life, as inevitably the children leave to make a better living in Dublin or London – or to escape the tyranny of a man whom most of them regards as "always…. the very living centre of all parts of their lives".

Moran's bullying, sarcasm and desire to stand on his dignity and have the last word do not endear him to me. Much of the quiet tragedy of this book is the high price he pays for his behaviour in terms of the loss of his old friend McQuaid, even his eldest son. It is quite hard at times to understand how his stoical wife Rose manages to turn the other cheek.

Highly recommended, this is a thought-provoking and moving read which enhances our understanding of ordinary life, with a wry humour to counter what may sound like the downbeat misery of the theme.

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ 5 Stars

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