Creatures of the Earth, by John McGahern

Such sweet sorrow
Click to follow

The "best of life," said John McGahern in his wonderful last book, Memoir, "is lived quietly, where nothing happens but our calm journey through the day, where change is imperceptible and the precious life is everything." It's a statement that could be taken as a manifesto for his work, work which contains, in each finely honed and often bite-sized chunk, whole worlds of heartbreak.

To say that "nothing happens" in a McGahern novel or story is often something of an understatement. His fiction is less about the events that punctuate our lives than the quiet rhythms that mark our slow progression, à la Beckett, from the cradle to the grave. For more than four decades, until his death from cancer earlier this year, John McGahern depicted daily life in the country he both loved and loathed. The final body of his work, which includes the Booker-shortlisted masterpiece, Amongst Women, serves as a testament not just to one of the finest writers of the past 50 years, but to a country which, beneath his gaze, changed beyond all recognition.

Creatures of the Earth, his collection of "New and Selected Stories", offers a panoramic snapshot both of the country and of McGahern's work. Here is an Ireland shot through with the timeless rituals of a rural community, one that worships at the twin altars of the Catholic church and the pub, and that marks the passing of its members with lavish celebrations at both. Here are tyrannical fathers ruling their broods with iron fists and threats of disinheritance, cowering offspring chained to family farms, and mousy wives exhausted by childbirth and poverty. Here, in fact, are all the archetypes of Irish life, but under McGahern's Midas touch they turn to gold.

His portrait of a primitive community locked in a timeless past, one marked by hard physical grind, casual brutality, and near-total ignorance of any world beyond the bounds of the village or farm, is about as far from the Celtic Tiger as it's possible to get. In the first story, "Wheels", he describes a son's visit to his father, offering, in a few deft strokes, a vivid portrait of a miserable marriage, an expectation of family obligation bordering on servitude and a fierce inarticulacy imbued with the threat of violence.

In "Korea" he recounts a son's devastating discovery that his father's offer to pay his fare to the US is based on the hope that he will be conscripted, and a friend's tales of hefty insurance payments in the case of death. In "Lavin" he depicts a world of brutish sexual fantasies, one in which the big excitement for two adolescent boys is the local peeping Tom, obsessed with the pubic hair of pubescent girls, and the thrill of torturing a frog. In "Faith, Hope and Charity", he describes a feckless father whose decision to hold an extravagant funeral for his son perpetuates the cycle of debt he is already in.

These are stories bursting with quiet tragedy, peppered with opportunities missed, lives wrecked by a single throw of the dice and portraits of men and women whose modest hopes have hardened into disappointment. But if the lives are rarely redeemed, the stories - as compressed as poems - are: by their exquisite subtlety, their lyrically spare descriptions of the natural world and, above all, by their humanity.

And some of the stories are a little less grim. "Gold Watch" is a rare depiction of joyously unfettered young love that survives even the family's attempts to crush it. "Bank Holiday" describes the quietly unfolding love affair of a senior civil servant with a much younger academic. "Creatures of the Earth", one of two new stories, describes grief, yes, but the grief that strikes after a long, happy, equal marriage. "They were the last words he spoke," writes McGahern of the dying husband, "and broke her heart, but they were a deep source of solace in the days ahead." The same could be said of this bleakly beautiful work.