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Old 31st Jan 2008, 12:59   #1
John Self
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Default Book 50: AMONGST WOMEN by John McGahern

Here's a place to talk. I read this book last year (on honeymoon: very cheery reading) but as is the way of things, unless I write my impressions down immediately, it's mostly gone. But I remember many oohs and aahs of worrisome delight in the prose, and the strong characterisation. One review on the back cover of my edition calls it "a millimetre away from perfection." Which I thought a bit ungenerous.

I have it beside me to re-read as soon as possible. But don't let me stop you.
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Old 31st Jan 2008, 14:36   #2
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Default Re: Book 50: AMONGST WOMEN by John McGahern

As I lurch through the last pages of Conrad (what a relief to be done with that), I'm aiming to begin reading it tonight.
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Old 31st Jan 2008, 14:44   #3
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Default Re: Book 50: AMONGST WOMEN by John McGahern

I don't even need to know which Conrad it is you're reading to nod in sympathy. But as it's The Secret Agent, make that a double-nod.
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Old 2nd Feb 2008, 10:31   #4
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Default Re: Book 50: AMONGST WOMEN by John McGahern

It wasn't so much any particular delight in the prose I found in this book, but the strong characterisation drove it all the way. The impression of conflict even when there was none to be seen, the silent violence and the oppression, whether of personality or opportunity, was remarkable. I find it hard to say what I felt about Moran, so I'll start by saying that the style of the writing took some getting used to: it was a sturdy re-telling of a life and the motion and emotion around it. We did not so much see into the interior of Moran's thoughts or heart but had to worm our way into understanding it from his responses to everything around him. The style was "tell-and-show" with an equably forceable emphasis on the "tell" - the writer could sometimes do not other than explain *how* and *why* a certain character had never done a thing, or felt a certain thing. It was awkward to read at first, and similarly whenever McGahern needed an outsider's eye on what was happening, he simply took up their story - Nell's, Mark's - as if they had a voice in the story all along.

It seemed to be the story of a bump on a log: it sits there and cannot be moved and has to be accepted for what it is: we were constantly being told that Moran would never change "now", as if there had ever been a time when he would have. The bump on the log can cause problems, or knock against things, or bruise because of the way it sticks out but it can only say it is being itself. The frustration reading about the intransigencies of this man and his demands and his controlling seeming-authority were the most powerful aspect of the book for me.

The sense of opposites sharing the same space without acknowledging each other was also part of the drama. Moran strove to keep his family upright yet it consisted of little more than insisting on the family prayer time. Force of habit was the snare - so that the children who could, found they still loved him and forgave him all his trespasses through force of habit. I just couldn't work out whether in the end I found this reprehensible. Forced to endure his nature, was it really a truer form of love to put up with it in such a way as they did. Although each child found their way to leaving and founding their own version of happiness, the instinct that pulled them back was more Pavlovian and damaging, I felt, rather than the pull of free love (which sounds a contradiction, I know).

One of the best metaphors in the book was that of the meadow when Moran was cutting hay: the sisters mention how the hares will run from the cutter and bound away to life and freedom, whilst they come across a hen pheasant sitting on her nest:

Quote:
They were startled that she didn't fly until they saw feathers on the swards. the legs had been cut from under her while she sat. He eyes were shining and alive, a taut stillness over the neck and body, petrified in her instinct.
I'll come back and say more later - haven't had breakfast yet! - but this got a definite

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Old 3rd Feb 2008, 16:04   #5
Ang
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Default Re: Book 50: AMONGST WOMEN by John McGahern

Quote:
Originally Posted by Colyngbourne
...Force of habit was the snare - so that the children who could, found they still loved him and forgave him all his trespasses through force of habit. I just couldn't work out whether in the end I found this reprehensible. Forced to endure his nature, was it really a truer form of love to put up with it in such a way as they did. Although each child found their way to leaving and founding their own version of happiness, the instinct that pulled them back was more Pavlovian and damaging, I felt, rather than the pull of free love (which sounds a contradiction, I know).
I agree, there was no free love between Moran and anyone, but he was a bully so that's unsurprising. I wonder how much of Rose's sticking up for him was out of self-preservation rather than love. I think the boys of the family were more correct in how they dealt with their father, even though they appeared to be opposite. I like this that Luke had to say (p. 143 in my edition):
Quote:
'I hold no grudge. That would be stupid. But I have a good memory.'
We never really know what wrongs were inflicted on Luke, but there are plenty of hints, most notably the threat of the naked beating of their brother Michael sounding familiar to the sisters.

To suck up to a bully though is not doing anyone any good, especially the bully. Rose could have made life so much better for all by continuing to stand up to him rather than seek to excuse all the horrible things he said.

But Rose is a very realistic character, unfortunately.

I liked the book quite a lot.

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Old 3rd Feb 2008, 17:04   #6
Beth
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Default Re: Book 50: AMONGST WOMEN by John McGahern

I'm finding it tough to think about this novel without being internally polarized. The story is deftly and fully told in just 184 pages. McGahern created an arc that enfolds the portion of the life of this family relevant to the underlying menace that gives them energy. And nothing truly exists outside that circle. I think he does a tremendous job of showing the cycle of domestic violence and life with an individual who must control whom he can. Very perfectly chilling in that respect. But it was hard for me to find any character, save Luke, that generated any engagement as a reader. At some points in the novel, I almost felt as though I were perusing an educational pamphlet or primer on how this sort of familial violence works. I kept wondering what McGahern is trying to do. Was he simply telling the story? Was he trying to create such revulsion in the reader for Moran that the simplicity of the story is all that is necessary? The prose is so spare, and there's a definite lack of any authorial philosophizing through characters. The family simply are who they are on the page, it seems. I don't know that I've read anything quite like it, and I'm wondering if layers and themes will sneak out and come forward slowly. The combination of clarity and discomfort caused me to look forward to the novel's end, while appreciating the craft with which the story is told.
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Old 3rd Feb 2008, 21:48   #7
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Default Re: Book 50: AMONGST WOMEN by John McGahern

Beth, I understand exactly what you're saying, but to me this was giving a story for everyone except Moran. Their life with him helped determine who they were. Some rejected him; most accepted him in one way or another.

I think I know exactly where I would be... or is that the one I'd like to be?
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Old 3rd Feb 2008, 22:10   #8
HP
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Default Re: Book 50: AMONGST WOMEN by John McGahern

Quote:
Originally Posted by Beth View Post
The family simply are who they are on the page, it seems. I don't know that I've read anything quite like it ...
I know precisely what you mean, Beth. That has been my reaction too. The strangest thing was that I read this very quickly (usually a sure sign I'm thoroughly enjoying book), and it was no effort to turn the pages at all - well, not after I'd acclimatised to McGahern's style of doggedly telling, rather than showing, something Col obviously noted too, as she mentions it in her review above. And despite this 'telling' style of delivery (and being a little startled when big events that would have been fully developed as show pieces, in the hands of most skilled writers - like the weddings - were smartly dispensed with in a couple of sentences at most) - I really did enjoy Amongst Women, too ... but not without a certain degree of frustration.

For me, the story certainly belted along and the characters were all extremely credible - even the saintly Rose: her neediness for harmony and innate desire to give and cherish the man she had married, to the point she let Moran terrorise his family, and which, in a way, made her an accomplice to his brutality, made her the right side of imperfect and therefore human. Surely, it wasn't just me: didn't you also long for her or someone - anyone - to just bop the bloody thug on his unlovely nose and tell him to grow up?! I know I did. But the frustration I mentioned earlier, wasn't that Moran was allowed to get away with his appalling behaviour, but that we were never given reasons as to why he was such a tortured soul. Yes, there was mention of his past in terms of being a guerrilla leader in his youth, and his disenchantment with the way everything had turned out since, but nothing to explain away his thuggery towards his children, nor the hypocritcal and unhealthy insistence on rigid prayer time. Had he been similarly brow beaten with religion and the fist? That this was a man far more in thrall to the hellfire and damnation aspects of worship than anything to do with kindness and goodwill begs the question - why? How so? His was a religion worn as a badge of honour and pride, and used as yet another weapon with which to bludgeon any blossoming independence and so control his children.

Similarly, with Rose, I wanted to know, why she was so forbearing and determined to take every unkindness and harsh word thrown her way, without complaint. That neediness I mentioned - well, something must have triggered it - no? In fact, why on earth did she fall for Moran in the first place, given she had many other suitors (as her mother testified several times)? Could it be that Rose was one of those women (and sadly, they do seem to be a type) who are drawn to bullies and control freaks? Yes, Moran was apparently a good looking man, but she must have sensed the underlying violence he carried within? But as with Moran, McGahern doesn't shine a light on the hows and whys of these characters at all. And that for me was a real weakness. Just a hint, that's all I wanted, just a few flashbacks that might suggest what had made Moran and Rose the way they were when we meet them. In fact it bugged me so much, this not knowing that I went digging and found some interviews with McGahern. Aha! A little enlightenment! Seems much of Moran is based on McGahern's father - a terrifying brute who inflicted misery and violence on his children - including McGahern - and whom McGahern has never forgiven. And even more tellingly, inn one of these interviews, McGahern says quite candidly that he never did understand why his father was that way. In fact, reading between the lines, I get the impression, he probably doesn't even want to. The man was the source of so much misery to him, he has consigned him to a box draped in loathing and has no interest in investigating its contents at all. This surprises me, since I'd have thought he would have been anxious to find some way of rationalising the cruelty metered out to him and his sisters, but it does explain why Moran isn't given any background in the book that would explain his brutish, psychopathic need for domination. Quite simply, the author doesn't know.

The theme that McGahern returns to again and again, and which for me, is the lynch pin of the book, is that of the importance of Family. The Family bond that nourishes and protects from a hostile world that lies beyond the familial home - but one that demands complete loyalty and unquestioning allegiance. It's a stance that says, no matter what the suffering of little children, the calculated iniquities metered out by thuggish damaged fathers, children - small and grown - need the hub of home to attach themselves to - like the spokes of a wheel. That without that hub, they are lost and cast adrift. Take these two snippets below (and there's at least half a dozen more I could quote that express this essential-glue-of-Family theme) and see if you agree:

Quote:
Together they were one world and could take on the world. Deprived of this sense they were nothing, scattered, individual things. They would put up with anything in order to have this sense of belonging. They would never let go. No one could be allowed to walk out easily.
Quote:
Sheila met his laughter with a withering stare. He might be allowed through her into the family but it did not mean that be belonged. No outsider was allowed to laugh at anything so sacrosanct as the family.
For what it's worth, I don't happen to agree with McGahern on this, but that doesn't matter. What is clear is that since so much of the book seems to be based on his own childhood experiences, it is his view that the strength and sense of identity gained from remaining loyal to the Family unit at all costs, is worth the price of a cruel treatment from a severly damaged, and damaging father.

There's much else I'd like to say about this book - Moran's and Rose's characters are fascinating - but I've rambled on far too long as usual, so will leave things here for the now. But if you're interested in finding out a little more about McGahern and in so doing, perhaps having a better view into the autobiographical element that accounts for a huge proportion of Amongst Women - then check out the sites below. One is an extract from his autobiography and makes for very moving reading. In the meantime, I've ordered his Memoir and have resolved to blow the dust of That They May Face The Rising Sun, which has been on my bookshelves for about three years now, totally untouched. Mr McGahern might not have got it quite right with Amongst Women, but I have a hunch he has much to offer even so.

For an interview-cum-article:

For an extract from Memoir:

****0

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Old 3rd Feb 2008, 22:37   #9
Colyngbourne
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Default Re: Book 50: AMONGST WOMEN by John McGahern

What did others reckon to the mention (twice, I think) of Moran's "Irish nature" and fear of starvation/the workhouse, as a partial reason to his brutal domination of the family?
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Old 3rd Feb 2008, 22:50   #10
HP
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Default Re: Book 50: AMONGST WOMEN by John McGahern

I think those elements help to explain some of what he was, Col - but don't explain the violence. His desire to hurt with words, as well as with physical blows, is due to other influences I think - not just a fear of poverty. What fascinated me about the man was his vanity. His desire to be the centre of attention - his need to feel respected by neighbours he nevertheless goes out of his way to avoid. Essentially, the comic/tragic nature of the man being his terrible blindness to his own flaws - and his breathtaking hypocrisy as far as religion goes.
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