Book Review: Amongst Women

Amongst Women

“‘Be careful’, Moran advised when he kissed each of them in turn as they were ready to leave. ‘Be careful never to do anything to let yourselves or the house down.'”

Amongst Women, by John McGahern, tells the story of an Irish farming family over a few decades in the twentieth century. It is bookended by the demise of the elderly patriarch, Michael Moran, a widower whose second wife, Rose, was welcomed by his teenage children for the relief it brought them. Moran is unpredictably temperamental, with strong views on how his family should behave. He has kept them distanced from the local community, something the children accept.

“Maggie looked at this isolation he had built up around them as distinction and strength. In her heart she felt that Rose was a little common in knowing so many people.”

Moran adheres to the rituals of his religion, with daily prayers – graces and rosaries – recited by the family together. Having fought and distinguished himself in the Irish War of Independence, he is now disappointed at how the new country turned out. He bought his farm with money received when he left the army, and turned the land into a living. Having done the best he knew how to raise his children, the sense of loss felt as each chooses to leave cuts deep. He had hoped that one of his sons would run the farm after him but neither were interested.

The slow peeling back of Irish family life is affecting if unrelenting in its honesty. Moran may be a difficult man to live with but there is a great deal of love and respect for him within the family circle. This doesn’t mean the children are always happy with what he demands of them. In their own way, each quietly rebels against imposed strictures. The choices they make are not always for the best.

“The whole empty strand of Strandhill was all around them and they had the whole day. There is nothing more difficult than to seize the day.”

When the children do need help they turn to each other. The obligations towards family are deeply ingrained. This is also true of the wider community, although perhaps not as powerfully as amongst the Morans.

“Such is the primacy of the idea of family that everyone was able to leave work at once without incurring displeasure. In fact their superiors thought the sisters’ involvement was admirable.”

The story offers snippets from the past: Moran’s fighting days; his courtship with Rose; how he treats his children and the limitations this incurs as they reach adulthood; his acceptance if not respect for the partners they choose, who each carry their own family baggage. That the children continue to visit Moran regularly, despite his outspoken views and behaviour, says much about the duty instilled.

The writing is taut and spare yet richly evocative of the time and place. It is hard to like Moran – the way he treats both family and neighbours; the cruelties he inflicts on Rose; his tightness over money when he is not poor – yet he elicits sympathy for doing what he believes best for his children.

There is a poignancy in the denouement that he did not recognise the loyalty of his family. His authoritarianism was, after all, of its time in Ireland.

“‘Who cares anyhow?’ Moran said. ‘Nobody cares.’
‘I care,’ she said passionately.
‘That doesn’t count.”

While in many ways a troubling story, the depth of feeling conveyed will linger. A remarkable achievement in a slim yet satiating read.

Amongst Women is published by Faber & Faber.