That They May Face the Rising Sun, by John McGahern, is a quiet book in many ways. As the saying goes though, still waters run deep. The story being told takes what is ordinary and everyday and ably uncovers how it is the small moments that are important in a life, not the headline occasions. These latter events may be much anticipated but rarely live up to expectations, generating anxiety as much as pleasure. When looking back, contentment was experienced through what may not have been paid much attention at the time.
Joe and Kate Ruttledge leave their comfortable lives in London to work a farm in rural Ireland. The traditional house and land are purchased with the help of Joe’s uncle, the Shah, a self-made and successful businessman living and working in the nearby town. The Ruttledges are not expected to stay the course but, over time, find their niche in the tight-knit community. They accept the quirks and foibles of local residents, becoming good friends with their farming neighbours, Jamesie and Mary.
The story opens on a Sunday. The reader learns that Joe, who once considered entering the priesthood, no longer attends Mass despite this being expected whatever one’s beliefs may truly be. The rituals of neighbourly behaviour are played out in the opening pages. Doors are rarely locked and visitors enter each others homes with just a knock or greeting to warn of their arrival. Tea or whiskey are offered immediately with sandwiches or other foodstuffs prepared for those who linger. News is devoured with relish – the local kind involving those they know personally rather than much from further afield. What goes on in the wider world draws little interest as impact is limited and discussion may generate antagonism.
Like many who grew up in the area, Jamesie’s brother, Johnny, now works in England. He visits every summer and a great fuss is made of the occasion. As in many families, the great welcome offered belies the reality of feeling. This may be known by some but face is saved by going along with whatever is presented. It takes a crisis to make any family unit open up about concerns to even their closest acquaintances.
There are exceptions. John Quinn is an appalling character whose predilections shock those he claims as friends, and yet they are accepted. John is open about his behaviour, preferring the gossip about him to be based on a first hand account, relishing the attention. Bill Evans, on the other hand, grows upset if expected to talk much about himself. It is known that he suffered as a boy at the hands of the church and there is guilt, with all somehow feeling complicit.
Jamesie and Mary’s son now lives in Dublin with his wife and children. They offer a moving contrast between what each generation values and expects. Other characters come and go, offering insights into how differing people are regarded and treated. The politics of the time, the island divided, is mentioned but mostly as just another item of news that has little day to day effect.
The structure of the story offers a window into the Ruttledge’s daily existence over the course of around a year. The farm is tended, livestock reared and sold, visitors welcomed. The writing is insightful and at times poetic in its evocation of the area and the accepted culture of those who live there. The reader will become invested in the outcomes of characters. As the seasons progress and small changes in lives occur, they will grow eager to know what happens next.
A gentle yet powerful read that brings to the fore what is important in a life and how what many feel they should strive for may not bring long term contentment. A beautifully told tale that neither glorifies nor vilifies, drawing the reader into the hearths and homes of a small Irish community from where they may observe and judge for themselves.
That They May Face the Rising Sun is published by Faber & Faber