This slim, unassuming volume actually marks a very important discovery in my reading life: I purchased it on my first trip to a local charity shop’s book section. Before that fateful day, I’d almost exclusively haunted secondhand bookstores and book fairs. Discovering that charity shops also had amazing book selections – and so cheap! – was a revelation! I’d been looking for a copy of Amongst Women since I began the Keeping Up With The Penguins project a year and a half ago, so I was more than happy to hand over $3 for this pristine Faber edition.
Right, enough personal stories – this isn’t a recipe blog! Let’s get down to business. Amongst Women is the best-known novel of Irish writer John McGahern. It is widely considered to be his masterpiece, and it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in the year of its release (1990). That was pretty much all I knew about it going in. From the blurb, I thought it might be similar to An Artist Of The Floating World, in that they’re both stories of aging men trying to outrun the fallout from their role in a war in the mid-20th Century. On the face of it, that assumption was technically correct, but the protagonists are very different, and as such their stories go in very different directions…
Michael Moran is an IRA veteran, a former officer and guerrilla fighter in the War Of Independence and the Irish Civil War of the 1920s. He’s known to his community as a respectable and devout Catholic, but behind closed doors it’s a different story. He’s super bitter about the “small minded gangsters” that now run his country, and he refuses to accept the government’s solider pension, because he feels they have betrayed the ideals he fought for (yeah, let ’em keep their money, that’ll show ’em!). Lacking any other outlet for his frustration, he exorcises his demons on those closest to him. He’s positively tyrannical in his personal life, cruel and brutal with his wife and children, and controlling in the extreme. So, consider this a trigger warning if those kinds of family dynamics don’t sit well with you: you’re going to want to give Amongst Women a miss.
Amongst Women begins in the Moran family home, in the rural midlands of Ireland. Moran is elderly, weakened by illness and age, and suffering a bout of depression his family fears will kill him. His adult daughters have decided to re-create an annual event of their childhood, Monaghan Day, in an effort to lift the old man’s spirits. From there, the family’s history is told through flashbacks as the Moran women remember their shared past, but it’s not a jumpy timeline (thank goodness!). It’s more like a chronological story that circles back around on itself. In fact, I’d say the opening scene really just serves as an unofficial prologue, setting up the story.
These grown daughters are: Maggie, who moves to London to become a nurse and marries a fashionable drunk; Mona, the family beauty who returns home most often, holds a civil service job in Dublin; and Shelia, who wanted to go to university but ol’ Daddy Moran talked her out of it (boo!). Shelia is the most defiant of the three, and a lot of her motivation comes from wanting to keep her own children away from the poisonous Moran patriarch. He’s a real bastard, no doubt about that. He lacks any sense of self-awareness, he has an explosive temper, he’s frustrated by his own obsolescence… it’s a deadly combination, one that makes him very unpredictable.
So, the flashback takes us back to when Moran – then a widower – re-married a local woman called Rose. His children were already teenagers, but she still became a mother figure to them, and she was often called upon to mediate disputes. She’s disturbingly tolerant of Moran’s mood swings and abuse. In fact, all of the Moran women are. Like many victims of such cruelty, they become extremely grateful for any expression of tenderness or goodwill, and they wind up willing to overlook his behaviour and his unapologetic attitude. This is, really, the crux of the story; there’s not a lot of plot, just the normal highs and lows of family life, and trying to work out why on earth all these women are so gentle with such an arsehole.
As the children leave home, one by one, Moran grows increasingly panicked. He can’t handle no longer being the center of their worlds, so what does he do? He devolves into a clingy, needy, hot mess, demanding their attention (and thus drawing them back to him), even when it disturbs the lives they’re trying to build for themselves. He finds his sons particularly threatening, as they “need” him the least (i.e., they’re less inclined to indulge his every whim).
Ah, yes, the sons! There’s two of them: Luke, the eldest, who escapes to London early on, unable to cope with his father’s overbearing authority; and Michael, the youngest, who hides in Rose’s skirts until he’s old enough to escape, too. It’s a dynamic that plays out with every single one of the Moran children, boys and girls alike: the only power they can exert in their relationship with their father is to leave him. Moran talks a lot of smack about how blood-is-thicker-than-water and family solidarity is the most important value and all of that, so the act of leaving him for the Big Smoke is the ultimate kick in the guts. And, yet, they all find themselves suckered back in to his vortex of manipulation and cruelty – all except Luke, who returns to Ireland only once, to attend Sheila’s wedding.
Moran dies in the end, of course. He’s buried under a yew tree and everyone grieves, but McGahern goes out of his way to make it abundantly clear that this is not the end of that bastard’s influence in their lives:
“… now, as they left him under the yew, it was as if each of them in their different ways had become Daddy.”Amongst Women, pg. 183
I kept waiting for the “clang” that never really came. Perhaps McGahern intended for Moran’s death to be that moment, but it seemed a foregone conclusion: what other ending could he give such a terrible person? Amongst Women was, in short, the story of a traumatised veteran abusing and manipulating his whole family until the day he died. All the women he was amongst just made excuses for him and cleaned up after him, keeping the peace instead of calling him out on his bullshit. It’s a heart-breakingly familiar and relatable narrative, but in that sense it’s also really frustrating. What good is mirroring these unhealthy family relationships back at us through fiction, if the story doesn’t teach us anything other than… these families exist? I mean, we knew that. Arseholes die but people remember their arseholery? We knew that, too. Trauma is passed down through generations? Yep, we’re all across it. Amongst Women is not a satisfactory story, it’s just a depressing window into a dysfunctional family in a small Irish town.
Perhaps McGahern was trying to make some greater point about why the women in Moran’s life remained so devoted to him, even after they established independent lives of their own, but I couldn’t see it. I read later, in other reviews, that McGahern “asks whether exile offers the only hope for freedom and individuality” in post-colonial Catholic rural Ireland, and “exposes the insecurities and inexpressiveness of Irish masculinity”. I guess I can kind-of see both of those elements, but only after they were pointed out for me in a For-Dummies kind of way, so I don’t blame you if you missed them too.
I do like the title, though, and it has a clever dual meaning. Firstly, the Moran household is mostly female, so Moran is literally “amongst women”. Secondly, it refers to a line from the Hail Mary prayer (which I only learned reading this book, I’m a big ol’ heathen) – “blessed art thou amongst women”. The Moran family says a lot of Hail Marys, it’s a daily ritual for them, so it’s repeated often enough that you get the point.
Given the level of detail McGahern gave about the emotional brutality of these relationships, it came as no surprise to me that Amongst Women is (at least somewhat) autobiographical. These pages were clearly written by someone with inside knowledge of what a Moran-type household is like. McGahern’s beloved mother, Susan, died when he was a child, leaving he and his siblings in the care of his authoritarian IRA-veteran father. My heart breaks for McGahern; it must have been a deeply traumatic childhood (and adulthood, if his relationship with his real-life father bore out the way the fictional ones did), but I found myself frustrated on that point, too. When Louisa May Alcott mined her own childhood and family life for a novel, it was called “sentimental” and “schmaltzy” and excluded from the canon for years. When McGahern did it, it was heralded as a literary triumph, and the Booker Prize came a’knocking. Hardly seems fair, eh?
But I can see how I’m perhaps being a little hard on McGahern here, so I’ll let him have the last word of this review. He said of his novel: “The whole country is made up of families, each family a kind of independent republic. In Amongst Women, the family is a kind of half-way house between the individual and society.” And I think he’s spot on, there.
My favourite Amazon reviews of Amongst Women:
- “I didn’t care about anyone in this family.” – Jayfred
- “For some reason I expected the book. Instead I rec the literary review which was actually better tha the actual book.” – Lisa L Smith
November 20, 2019 at 7:21 PM
“talks a lot of smack” now that one is entirely new to me, I get some idea from the context but I’m off to look it up. Daily learning on this blog…
November 21, 2019 at 9:40 AM
Hahahahaha it’s fun to learn! 😉