…in which I invite someone bookish to share one of their all-time favourite works of fiction and what it means to them. This week’s Friday Fave comes from Kim Forrester:
I have a long love affair with Irish literary fiction, but the romance didn’t truly begin until I discovered John McGahern. I can’t remember which clever person recommended I try him (I will be eternally grateful), but it was the unusually hot British summer of 2006 and when I opened the pages of McGahern’s debut novel, The Barracks, I quietly fell in love. And when I spotted a signed first edition in an antiquarian bookshop in Dublin a couple of years ago I flirted with buying it — even though the asking price was €595! Yes, that’s how much I love this book.
The Barracks celebrates its 50th anniversary this year — it was written in 1963 and banned from McGahern’s local library at the time. It is a remarkably confident first novel by a man who went on to become a giant of modern Irish literature.
The story is a simple, yet heart-breaking one, of an Irish nurse who returns to the remote Irish village of her childhood after working in London during the Second World War. Here she marries a widower and becomes stepmother to three young children.
The widower is the sergeant of a three-man barracks who longs to escape the police force. Bitter about his job, he runs a sideline growing and cutting turf and does not seem particularly worried about being caught by the ever-prowling superintendent, who keeps a watchful eye on him.
In the claustrophobic surrounds of the barracks in which the police live and work, Elizabeth busies herself with the small but vital (and often unnoticed) tasks that are necessary for the smooth running of the household: cooking, cleaning, gardening, stoking the fire, minding the children and observing the nightly prayer ritual (this is 1950s Ireland, when the Catholic Church dictated almost every facet of a person’s life).
But when she discovers a cyst in her breast, she uses the importance of these tasks as an excuse not to see a doctor. When, at last, she is diagnosed with cancer she finds herself dwelling on the past and finding comfort in the present, while trying to contain the “scream in her mouth”. The most astonishing — and heartbreaking — aspect of her situation is that she chooses to keep this news to herself; not even the village priest knows that she is gravely ill.
The most impressive thing about this book is McGahern’s ability to write so effectively, authentically and eloquently about a middle-aged woman dying of breast cancer. Her interior monologues are heartfelt, swinging between joy and despair. Because she has no one with whom she can share her burden (her husband acts coldly and cruelly towards her as the illness progresses), she finds herself thinking more and more about a past lover, a young doctor in London, who constantly asked her: “What is all this living and dying about anyway?”
Later, when I read McGahern’s memoir, I realised that the story was a kind of love letter to his mother — she had died of cancer when he was a young boy (they are buried in the same plot in a beautiful, quiet churchyard in County Leitrim) and his father, a policeman, had behaved abhorrently towards her during her illness. This knowledge made what I had already considered a profoundly moving novel even more so. Indeed, I’d argue that this is the most haunting novel I’ve ever read — all these years later I still think about it.
Kim Forrester is an expat Australian who lives in London and has a penchant for Irish and Australian fiction. She is freelance magazine editor by day and reviews modern and contemporary fiction on her blog, Reading Matters, by night. Connect with her on Twitter.
Your turn: Have you read The Barracks or any of McGahern’s books? Does this one appeal to you?