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Takes One To Know One: A Masterful Irish Novelist

Early in 1989, the Irish novelist John McGahern came to my house in Dublin for supper. He had not published a novel for 10 years. I knew because he had told me in a number of letters that he had been struggling with a novel, and I knew also that he sometimes believed he was finished as a novelist. Over supper we did not mention novels. It was only when he was going that I noticed a large envelope on the hall table. "Have a look at that," he said shyly before leaving my house.

It was a photocopy of a typescript of a new novel, which was called Amongst Women. I spent the next day reading it. I wrote to him then to say that he had, after his long struggle, produced a masterpiece, which seemed effortless, formally perfect and oddly timeless, but also dark. It begins with one of the great opening sentences: "As he weakened, Moran became afraid of his daughters." It portrays a man, a hero of the Irish War of Independence, who gained nothing from the new Irish state except the realization that all he ruled over was his family.

McGahern's version of what love and togetherness does to families is dramatic and stark. Love in Moran's family is filled with bullying and the need to ritualize. The novel moves from scenes where exquisite details are scrutinized and tiny moments given immense power; to sweeping judgments of motive and character, almost as though the book is a cantata, with heartbreaking aria followed by calm recitative.

Colm Toibin is the author of six novels, including <em>The Blackwater Lightship, The Master</em> and most recently, <em>Brooklyn</em>.
Colm Toibin is the author of six novels, including The Blackwater Lightship, The Master and most recently, Brooklyn.

At the heart of the book is a brilliant and subversive idea -- that Ireland, rather than being a nation or a community, was a place of isolated families, bitter individuals and gnarled relationships. But McGahern is too subtle a novelist to ever mention this idea in the book. Instead he allows it to emerge subtly, slowly and organically, from the deadened rituals in which the characters indulge.

The pacing of the novel is masterly; its rhythms are filled with hidden emotion. The writing is plain, un-showy, the pauses like pauses in a prayer or a ballad. It became, on publication in 1990, the novel by which Irish people measured their world, and then it became famous in England and in France for its beauty, wisdom and calm perfection. It is the sort of book which you can give anyone of any age and know that they will be changed by it. It took 10 years to write; its power will last for many centuries.

You Must Read This is produced by Ellen Silva.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Colm Toibin