John Mcgahern's Amongst Women: Representation, Memory, And Trauma (Critical Essay) by Irish University Review: a journal of Irish Studies

Book Review : John Mcgahern's Amongst Women: Representation, Memory, And Trauma (Critical Essay)

By Irish University Review: a journal of Irish Studies

  • Publication Date: 2005-03-22
  • Genre: Reference

Book Review

Despite the prevailing enthusiastic reception of John McGahern's Amongst Women, (1) some readers detected in the novel's focus on rural Ireland of the 1950s a reluctance on his part to engage with contemporary Irish culture. Part of this reaction no doubt is triggered by McGahern's signature conservative narrative style, but the chief cause seems to be the retrograde nature of its material, the depiction of a dated rural community restrained and restricted by limited economic possibilities and a dominant Catholic social reality that seems distant from an Ireland of the European Union, globalization, and the Celtic Tiger. James Simmons, for example, in a review of Amongst Women complains that 'McGahern just doesn't care enough about what is happening in Ireland and the world and in his own life. He is sitting out there in his farm in Leitrim trying to write deathless prose, refusing to battle with necessary angels'. (2) Following Simmons's lead, another critic suggests that of all McGahern's novels, Amongst Women seems the most removed from its socio-historical moment, both in the subject matter and in the writing style. (3) But McGahern's treatment of the recent Irish past is not unique among contemporary Irish novelists. Indeed historical subject matter seems ubiquitous in the fiction of the past twenty years as one can see in the treatment of the Easter Rising, the War of Independence and the Irish Civil War by William Trevor, Jennifer Johnston, Roddy Doyle, and Seamus Deane. (4) In a recent study of contemporary Irish culture, Joe Cleary has argued that this historical distancing in fiction is only part of a wider cultural obsession with the past, apparent in novels like Amongst Women, but also in plays like Brien Friel's Dancing at Lughnasa and films like Jim Sheridan's version of J.B. Keane's The Field and Cathal Black's Korea. (5) Cleary suggests that this backward glance by writers and artists could indicate the traumatic nature of Irish history, events that require some passage of time before they are fully grasped, hence the retrograde tendency in recent Irish cultural expression. Cleary merely hints at this possibility, however, en route to his stronger conviction that the recurrent return to the past provides a way of measuring and clarifying Irish modernization and the astonishing social change in Ireland in the 1990s resulting from recent economic prosperity. Contemporary writers read the recent past of Irish life as an oppressive and restrictive age that 'acts a negative validation of the present which, what ever else it may be, is understood as a lucky escape "from all that". (6) In a variety of genres, McGahern, Friel, Sheridan, and Black all evoke an image of the anti-modern in Ireland 'which a modernizing Ireland needed both to define itself against and to transcend'. (7) Moreover, these works also emphasize the memory as part of the narrative strategy, so that the way the past is constructed or remembered is part of the subject. Central to each of these works, then, is a clear demarcation between then and now. Because they rely so much on the recollection of past events and reality, they run the eventual risk, Cleary suggests, of appearing remote and eventually becoming unrepresentative, offering a 'world increasingly regarded by audiences as a foreign past'. (8)

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