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THE NARRATIVE ARTS : AMONGST WOMEN By John McGahern (Viking: $17.95; 184 pp.)

September 09, 1990|MICHAEL HARRIS

Michael Moran was once a dashing hero of the Irish War of Independence. Now he is a prickly and embittered old man living "amongst women"--his young second wife and three daughters. He has cut his ties with the past but disdains the present; he has isolated himself and his family, "that larger version of himself," but dreads the loneliness sure to come when his sons run away and his daughters marry.

John McGahern ("The Dark," "The Pornographer") writes with ease and economy of an Ireland hardly disturbed by such modern intrusions as cars, chain saws and TV. Grudges and rituals live on--hatred of the Black and Tans, the evening reading of the Rosary, hay mowing, barn dances, contempt for the politicians who have somehow transmuted blood and sacrifice into business as usual: "some of our own johnnies in the top jobs instead of a few Englishmen."

"Amongst Women" is likely to puzzle the American reader at first, because McGahern, moving omnisciently among his characters and from one event to the next without chapter breaks, seems to pass up so many opportunities for emotional intensity. An American writer would treat Moran's neurosis as a problem, trace it to its wartime roots, force the old man to resolve it before he dies, or at least identify with the children struggling against it. McGahern does none of this. He is interested less in individuals than in the family, less in drama than in patterns of human relationships that can be seen only with a certain detachment, like druidical lines viewed from the air.

"Together they were one world and could take on the world," the daughters think of the feeling that binds them even after Moran is dead and some of them have moved to England. "Deprived of this sense they were nothing, scattered, individual things. . . . They would never let it go."

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