Probably McGahern’s most famous novel, Amongst Women is a masterpiece of condensed, lyrical prose and there’s a part of me that’s disappointed it didn’t win at the Booker. I was reminded strongly of the 2013 prize, where a faux-Victorian novel beat a more stylised work; at least I and the prize appear to be consistent in our leanings. There is one more curious parallel between the years, and that is to be found in Colm Tóibín’s appearance on the 2013 list. Tóibín has a very high opinion of McGahern, the two are frequently talked about together, and in some respects, Tóibín can probably be seen as a successor to McGahern. He also has a high opinion of Amongst Women, and chose it as the book he would recommend everyone read when interviewed for NPR’s You Must Read This. The further I get through this project, the more I am enjoying seeing connections!
Anyway, Amongst Women is about the old and ailing Michael Moran, an ex-IRA fighter being cared for by his three daughters. They are trying to recreate “Monaghan Day”, the family’s name for the market day when Moran would get the opportunity to reminisce with his friend. As this story develops, and Moran declines then dies, scenes from the family’s past are presented via flashbacks and we see Moran as disillusioned, bitter, and at times, abusive.
McGahern leaves much unsaid, and a strength of this book lies in its ability to present a grand depiction of Irish life and politics without mentioning either in much detail. McGahern’s prose is musical but sparing, and the book is short (under 200 pages) for its ambition. There are moments when the style slides slightly, and these are obvious given the novel’s reliance on its voice, but such moments are few and far between.
I said at the beginning that I am disappointed this didn’t win at the Booker. That may be putting my feelings a little strongly. But I do think it’s fair to say that there is a class of book that I derive much pleasure from where it feels as if the emphasis in the writing process has been on crafting the prose rather than the characters or plot. That isn’t to say the books lack character or plot, but that when reading them I feel carried along by style without needing to wonder about what will happen or how somebody will feel. And I think these works have a hard time winning the prize after making the shortlist. John Banville’s The Sea strikes me as a notable exception; at a stretch, Keri Hulme’s The Bone People might be another, although I suspect it was not on the basis of style that her book won. Were I simply focusing on the winners, as I know others have done in the past, I would have missed many works I found enjoyable. So I am glad this project broadens my pool of books, and very glad that this pool includes works such as Amongst Women, which is excellent.