Every year in March sees one of the biggest events of the global calendar, this is of course St. Patrick’s day, who is the patron saint of Ireland and all things Irish. So, while more and more countries celebrate the 17th of March by turning rivers, large iconic buildings and instantly recognisable monuments green; it also a time to reflect on what Ireland has given the international community. One of its biggest exports apart from Guinness and Arran jumpers is literature and recently the book club had the chance to read another well-known Irish writer. This month’s book is, That They May face The Rising Sun, by John McGahern, published by Faber & Faber in 2002.
The title may make you think, as it did with me, that it is set in some theatre of war, possibly in Asia, but it all takes place in peace time Ireland. The story follows the lives of Joe and Kate Ruttledge, for the first year after they have returned home from London to Kate’s home town in the border region of Ireland. The town is full of charming and quirky characters, each with their own problems and various idiosyncrasies. The Ruttledge’s spend most of their time in the company of their friends and neighbours from across the lake, Mary and Jamesie.
This book may not have much going on in the story-line, it charts the comings and going on in this small rural town-land, like a diary of sorts without chronological references. Just subtle indications to the gradual changing of the seasons, but McGahern’s charming little tale doesn’t require a big block busting pacey driven plot to keep you engrossed. The characters who are all excellently drawn and diverse, latch on to you and keep the reader turning the pages. There’s the town bachelor, the local business man, who is nicknamed “The Shah”, who helps life move by oiling the cogs of the local economy, but can can’t let go of the reins of the business to his only employee and a local cripple who is left mentally and physically scarred by his tragic upbringing. At the centre of it are the Ruttledge’s, a happy go lucky couple who have no real cares in the world and the only real threat to their new existence is the offer of a job back in London, by Kate’s old boss.
It appears Joe and Kate met while working for the same company in London, but Joe seems to have left their former employer under a cloud which isn’t explained but is hinted at, now he farms and does consultancy work.
There is a lot of humour in the book and drinking too! Every single page seems to have the characters calling into see each other and having large glasses of Irish whiskey. The characters have little or no malice in them, even where is a malicious intent, it is portrayed in a humorous almost darkly comical light. Take the towns eligible bachelor, who finally takes a woman to the alter but is really only marrying her for her dowry, cooking and cleaning skills. The reception is held in the grounds of a big local house and he, being quite unsure of social niceties literally takes her in the biblical sense on a hill in full view of the guests… This may shock some, but through the way Maghern tells the story, you are left with a shocked smirk on face, as if to say, did he actually do that?
This is not twee Irish, there’s nothing Darby O’Gill about it or any stereotypical
characters in the book, it had for me reminders of the Irish RM, a British TV series that ran on Channel 4 starring British actor Peter Bowles (To the Manor Born) and Irish actor Brian Murray (Brookside) back in the eighties. What you get from this book after reading it is a warm fluffy feeling as if you have just spent a week in the in a stone whitewashed cottage in the west of Ireland.
This Irish writer John McGahern’s sixth of seven novels, in all he wrote fifteen books the others were collections of short stories and one play The Power of Darkness. His other novels include The Barracks (1963), The Dark (1965), The Leave Taking (1974), The Pornographer (1979) and Amongst Women (1990). Born in 1934 he trained as a teacher before becoming a full-time writer. He won numerous awards both in Ireland and Internationally for his work and his book, Amongst Women was made into a four-part TV series for BBC. He died in 2006.
If there’s a downside to That They May See The Rising Sun, it’s a little confused as to what era its set. All the descriptions point to possibly late sixties early seventies. But there are references to one of characters watching the ITV show Blind Date which was hosted by Cilla Black between 1985 and 2003 and in another paragraph, they talk about the moon landings as if only happened the day before, which took place in 1969.
So, if you are looking for a charming, homely Irish book to read by an outstanding contributor to Irish literature, that is full of wit and will leave you feeling happy and contented at the end, while also itching to visit the emerald isle and kiss the Blarney Stone, this is the one for you. So, head in to your local book shop or download a copy. Open your drinks cabinet and find a nice Irish whiskey and settle down for a great read, especially with another cold snap planned for Easter period.