The Terrible Beauty of Ireland Captured

IrishcoastIn honor of all things Irish with St. Patrick’s day approaching, selected a book by John McGahern, hailed as “one of Ireland’s most stupendous prose stylists” (The Independent).  McGahern has written a quite a number of books, but his work “By the Lake” was recommended as his very best.  It is the tale of a contemporary Irish village, filled with characters who, over the course of year, journey through life’s trials of work and play, birth and death, joys and disappointments amidst an earthy, pastoral backdrop that looms so large as to be a character itself.

The action focuses around a displaced English couple, the Ruttledges, who came from London in search of a different sort of life.  They are the outsiders against which we examine the villiage’s long-time inhabitants: Jamesie and his wife Mary, who know everything that goes on, Jimmy Joe McKiernan, head of the local IRA, Bill Evans, a vagrant who was a child laborer, John Quinn, a man so focused on conquest of women to the exclusion of all else, and Patrick Ryan, a builder incapable of finishing anything he begins, to name a few. The book opens at the home of the Ruttledges and carries on as people come in and out of their life, encountering them in their daily rounds.  What it felt like to me was as if I were suddenly dropped into this Irish village as an invisible spirit, yet tied to the Ruttledges, and able to observe their day-to-day life over the year.  Conversations start mid-stream with little context.  The background on people is slowly revealed over the course of the story, so for the most part, I really felt lost and struggled to understand just what was going on.  That may be the point.  The reader is supposed to kick back and just go with the flow to truly appreciate the atmosphere.  The novel also has no chapters, but is one, long tale broken up only by scene changes marked with a little wingding of special type.


Unfortunately, I was doubly hindered by the fact that I did not understand the lingo.  Yes, it is written in English, but (confession: provincial  American that I am)  I still had trouble discerning the meaning of some expressions and words.  So, on top of the feeling of being dropped suddenly into a life without any preparation or background, all the people around me were speaking in a manner a bit foreign to my complete understanding.  I see this as my shortcoming (not the novel’s), and it reminds me somewhat of a similar shameful childhood experience.  My paternal grandfather was from Connemara, Ireland, and as a child I recall I could never understand a word he said (and maybe a bit of the drink contributed to that, no doubt.)  And  I’m sorry to say that when I was very young I used to run away from him when he spoke to me.  I haven’t run from “By the Lake,” but I must say, it has been hard going. JohnMcGahern


Filed under Book Review

4 responses to “The Terrible Beauty of Ireland Captured

  1. Dialect is always a problem. It’s realistic, but if it makes the book hard to follow then it’s a problem. I got very miffed a couple of years ago when a Scottish writer used Scots dialect beautifully in the first book in a series, and then in response to so many people saying they couldn’t follow it, toned it down into fairly standard English in book 2. But I could see their point…and his.

  2. Chris Sullivan

    As FF wrote, dialect is always a problem. I’m Scottish and I found some of the language difficult to understand in Irvine Welch’s Trainspotting. I have been reading Wuthering Heights again recently and I remembered what disappointed me about the novel; the heavily written north England dialect. It slows down the whole reading experience for me as I try to decipher what some of the characters are saying.

  3. Barb

    What a beautifully written book. Yes, there were some words that I didn’t know, and it took me awhile to settle in, as you said, and get into the characters, but once I did, I was hooked. I really admired the Ruttledges, who were the anchors that I clung to. They accepted most of the characters for who they were and showed them great compassion.

    My father’s family is from Connemara too, and I visited the area back in the early 80’s. The author really captured the beauty of the countryside, and I found myself there again on the dusty roads of Ireland..

  4. So glad you liked it, Barb, and I think you hit the mark when you described the beauty of the landscape and the fact that the author could make feel as if you were right there. The concept of the Ruttledges as the “anchors” in the story is an intriguing observation.

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