Book Of A Lifetime: The Barracks, by John McGahern
Friday 15 August 2008
Although I still have that first copy of the book, I can't tell whether I brought it out from Ireland or if I picked it up somewhere along the way. What I do know is that I first read John McGahern's The Barracks as a student in the early 1980s, when I was travelling through Europe for the summer.
I remember being in a youth hostel in Austria and staying up late into the night to finish the book, and then not being able to sleep afterwards. I must have been lying awake for hours thinking about it.
The Barracks is a heartbreaking story about a woman called Elizabeth Regan. The second wife of a widowed guard with three small children, she has worked for years as a nurse in England, and her time away has given her a consciousness, a moral sophistication that is not shared by those around her.
The acute understanding of the torment that this causes her is one of the things that makes this novel so powerful. Another is the elemental quality of McGahern's writing about landscape:
"They were so lonely and silent, these flat acres stretching to the rim of the sky, single men and small family groups working alone on their own banks, their voices carrying clear and far, the tiny purple bloom sprinkled on the dull heather, long acres of sedge as pale as wheat and taller, the stunted sally and birch trees rising bright as green flowers."
At times there is almost something eerie about the way that McGahern's language works. The words seem to disappear and you see the thing itself, as if unmediated. It's visual and tactile; there's a solidity about both the world described and the way in which its presentation is achieved here:
"The cold made her wince as she broke the ice, and she saw their black cat dart in through the door she'd left open."
To develop a style with this degree of clarity and deceptive simplicity even late in one's writing career would be an achievement, so to find it in a first novel makes it all the more remarkable.
The Barracks is a tragic book. It is completely unsentimental, a novel of great compassion and integrity. Although much of its subject matter is quintessentially Irish, the ways in which it dealswith topics such asloneliness, illness and death gives it a timeless, universal quality.
After discovering this book, I went on to read all of John Mc Gahern's work, but I didn't go back to The Barracks for a great many years. It had made such a profound impact on me when I read it first that I was afraid of being disappointed, afraid that the memory was inaccurate, or that I would see it differently and that it wouldn't mean so much to me.
An eventual second reading showed it to be every bit as unsettling, vivid and haunting a novel as it was 20 years earlier.
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