In 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.