Memoir, by John McGahern

Voyages around his father
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The Independent Culture

In a sense, McGahern has thought himself back into childhood, even while activating an adult consciousness that goes about the business of correcting and elucidating. Along with the sensuous recapturing of lost time comes a precise delineation of local elements of the past, with "religion and religious imagery" as "part of the air we breathed".

Many of the ingredients of this book will be familiar to readers of McGahern's novels and stories, a part of the air they generate. His early fiction, for example, contains several versions of his father, each more or less tyrannical as the emphasis is adjusted to accord with a theme. Even as late as 1990, the widowed farmer Moran in the novel Amongst Women has borrowed a republican past and a few emphatic traits from the real McGahern senior, a sergeant attached to the barracks at Cootehall, Leitrim.

Going back to The Barracks (1963), we get a sergeant's wife who is dying of cancer, just as the author's mother died when he was ten, leaving him - like the boy in The Dark (1965) - exposed to the tantrums of his harsh remaining parent.

Other emblems and incidents recur: McGahern has never made any secret of his reliance on experience for the bare bones of his fiction. His creative impulse is tied up with the domestic and low-key, with a concomitant refusal of elaborate plot-making or myth-making. But if the memoir returns us to the source of his preoccupations, it's with a difference. The novels' narrower focus tends toward a concentrated misery, frustration and privation, whereas the memoir's more relaxed and harmonious handling of its subject matter has a sense of luminosity. Its articulation is resourceful and evocative.

What are the attributes of this particular Irish upbringing? McGahern was born in 1943 in Leitrim, first of seven children of an intermittently bullying police sergeant and an engaging schoolteacher. The earliest part of his life was passed in blissful security, for the most part - but not for long. Two things, Elizabeth Bowen wrote, are terrible in childhood: helplessness, and the sense that something is being kept from you because it is too bad to be told. Both afflicted the young McGahern in relation to his mother's illness and eventual death, an event whose description here is charged with the utter desolation of bereavement.

The keenest sense of a lost haven is captured, very subtly, in the a litany of densely freighted landmarks, repeated like a mantra: "We'd walk again past Brady's pool, past Brady's house and street, and the street where the old Mahon brothers lived, past the deep, dark quarry, across the railway bridge and up the steep hill past Mahon's shop to the school".

After their mother's death, the children of the family - McGahern, his five younger sisters and baby brother - come together in an unspoken alliance to counter the worst excesses of their volatile father, in whose personality charm, brutality, self-pity, moroseness and impressiveness were oddly mixed. One of McGahern's aims in writing this book is to get to the bottom of his unfathomable father, whose actions are sometimes strange indeed. In fact, the sergeant emerges as a great fictional character. But it's the spirit of his mother, vivid, responsive and indomitable, that presides over McGahern's wonderfully felicitous and heartening exercise in autobiography.

Patricia Craig's life of Brian Moore is published by Bloomsbury

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