Book Review: That They May Face the Rising Sun

Face the Rising Sun

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


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.