Lyrically written as so many Irish novels are, this centres around the inscrutable patriarch of a rural family. Moran rules his family with an iron fist. He’s an old freedom fighter from the days of revolution against British rule and, if we’re being sympathetic to him, he suffers from PTSD.
It’s very hard to be sympathetic to him, though as his constant belligerance keeps his family on edge. He’s already alienated one son as the book gets underway and goes on to alienate another. His daughters tiptoe around him like he’s primed semtex.
In the midst of this storm comes Rose, a local woman who, somehow, manages to marry the man and bring some fur to line the flint. Despite her saintly forebearance, he still manages to push everyone to the limit.
The story is well told although none of the characters except Moran are really crafted well enough for you to get to know them too well. And it’s Moran you really want a break from most of the time.
Quite why McGahern titled it Amongst Women eluded me. There’s at least one son at home for most of the novel so it isn’t that Moran has to endure entirely female company. The very useful Wikipedia entry was helpful here, and if I’d had more of a Catholic bent, I’d have picked up the reference; ‘blessed art thou amongst women‘ is a line from the Rosary which Moran faithfully leads his family to pray on many occasions in the book.
The novel was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and lost out to Possession by Byatt, a novel that was written by an author seemingly far more concerned to impress literary judges. McGahern’s storytelling is subtle and measured and, if you let it get to you, moving. Unlike Byatt, he’s well worth reading.