Friday, June 24, 2011


Pages: 272
Date: 24/06/2011
Grade: 4-
Details: Non-Fiction
            Book Club Read

As the title suggests, this is the story of John (Sean) McGahern's life.
Having said that, it is predominantly the story of his childhood, with a relatively small part of the book dedicated to his years as an adult, up to the time of his father's death.
That he would end the book with his father's passing makes sense,since this is basically the story of McGahern's troubled relationship with his father.
McGahern senior was a Garda sergeant living in Police barracks as was normal at that time (the 1940's and 50's) in Ireland and rarely spend time with his wife and children. When he did he was an unpredictable person to be around. At times charming, "Daddy" was also overbearing, selfish, unreasonable and at times abusive.
Until McGahern was 10 his loving mother formed a buffer between Sean, his siblings and their father, giving her children an almost idyllic start in life. Her death of cancer not only leaves Sean heartbroken but also means that he and his brother and sisters have to move into the barracks with their father and start living a completely different, less sheltered and much harsher life.
Almost despite the 7 years he lived with his father, McGahern does well in school, trains to be a teacher, discovers books and changes his dream from being a priest to becoming a writer.
Even when Sean is grown up his relationship with his father doesn't improve. Although they always remain in contact, write to and visit with each other, Sean never loses the resentment against his father he built up during his childhood and the father never seems to realize that there is anything wrong with his relationship with his children.

The only other book I've read by McGahern is "That They May Face the Rising Sun", which remains one of the most beautiful books I've ever read. McGahern works magic with words. He paints verbal pictures with an amazing clarity. And he does the same in this book.
And in a way that works against the story of his life. The language is almost to beautiful for me to get a real feel for how awful life with his father was, although the beauty of his words was exactly right when McGahern was writing about his mother and his love for her.
One thing I didn't like was the way McGahern would keep on repeating certain sentences. One example clearly springs to mind, a description of a route Sean and his mother would regularly walk: "Going past Brady's pool and Brady's house and the street where the Mahon brothers lived, past the dark deep quarry and across the railway bridge and up the hill past Mahon's shop to the school." This description was repeated, almost every second page in the early part of the book and again later on. And although I'm sure there is a reason why McGahern decided to use this repetition, the meaning of it completely escapes me, and it ended up irritating me a bit.
On the other hand, the book also gave me a few observations that rang very true, like "There are no days more full in childhood than those days that are not lived at all, the days lost in a book" and "In that one life of the mind, the writer could live many lives and all of life".
Overall I'd have to say that I'm glad I read this book. Because of the beauty of the language it was an easy book to read, even when the subject matter was harder. It was also very interesting to read about rural life in Ireland around the middle of the 20th century. McGahern would have been a contemporary of my parents, yet the contrast between the world he grew up in and the one my parents knew in Holland is striking. 
For me this was a good and interesting read but not an exceptional one.

No comments: