I read John McGahern’s Amongst Women back in 2019 and deemed it ‘a compelling masterpiece’. That The Barracks is a masterpiece as well, suggests that McGahern is one of the best writers that Ireland has ever produced.
When McGahern was 10 years old, his mother died from breast cancer and he and his siblings moved into the Garda barracks in Cootehall, Co Roscommon, to live with their father, Frank, who served as sergeant there. He used this piece of autobiography as the seed for The Barracks, an astonishingly accomplished debut, written while he was still working as a primary school teacher in Dublin.
The Barracks is a heartbreaking story of a middle-aged woman called Elizabeth Regan who discovers early in the narrative that she has cancer. In spite of her illness, she still has to look after her husband, a discontented Garda sergeant and the three children from his first marriage.
Elizabeth was a nurse in London in the post-war years, and her time there has given her a moral consciousness and intelligence shared by few in her village. She has lived alone. In flashbacks we are told of her formative yet doomed love affair with a troubled doctor which has changed her outlook on life. On her return to Ireland she has met and married Regan, and it appears she loves him, but it is the love of a woman who knows that love alone is not enough.
It is this consciousness, this acute understanding of her situation which gives the novel its power. Elizabeth has chosen a life of routine and domesticity, perhaps as a rebound from her heady yet unpredictable life in London. She has embraced the daily chores and the small moments of comfort and pleasure she now gets from life, but as her illness progresses and Regan’s unhappiness with his job grows, she is beginning to question the choices she has made in life.
Her woman’s day had no need of change. They were full and too busy, wanting nothing but to be loved. There was the shrill alarm clock at eight in the barracks morning and the raking of the ashes over the living coals close to midnight: between these two instants, as between tides, came the retreating nights of renewal and the chores of the days on which her strength was spent again…and as no one noticed them they were never praised.
Illness as brought Elizabeth’s life into sharp relief. She finds herself thinking more and more about her lover in London, now long dead and the question he used to ask her over and over: “What the hell is all this living and dying about anyway?”. In a sense, the whole novel is an attempt to answer this existential dilemma.
What is remarkable about The Barracks is the ability of a writer as young as McGahern to so fully and authentically enter mind and body of a middle-aged woman. He examines her moments of joy and despair with a visceral force, exploring how her fear of death and disintegration slowly gives way to an acceptance of life and an acknowledgement of its beauty.
Her routines take on an elegiac grace and she finds meaning and worth in daily tasks.
It was a mere meal no longer with table and tablecloth and delf and food, it was that perfectly, but it was above and beyond and besides the wondrous act of their reality.
McGahern celebrates and elevates the wondrous fact of our reality through this moving study of family life. Very little happens, but all of human nature is here because he writes so intimately about the minutiae of daily life and the landscape within which it is lived.
There is an elemental and painterly quality to the way McGahern writes about the landscape, creating a feeling of immediacy and putting the reader right there with his characters.
The ice had to be broken on the barrels each morning. It was so beautiful when she let up the blinds first thing that, ‘Jesus Christ’, softly was all she was able to articulate as she looked out and up the river to the woods across the lake, black with the leaves fallen except the red rust of the beech trees, the withered reeds standing pale and sharp as bamboo rods at the edge of the water…the high branches of a sycamore a pure white line through the air.
While reading The Barracks I felt a bit like Elizabeth when she pulled up that blind, struck on each page by the unsentimental beauty captured by McGahern. It is, at times, just breathtaking in its understanding of human thought and emotion. It is a sad and a tragic book, yet it is also filled with compassion, delicacy and integrity.
In some ways The Barracks is a quintessentially Irish novel, concerned with lives connected to the land, to religion and to routine. The women are quiet and hard-working, the men taciturn and forbearing, yet in the way the novel handles questions of loneliness, illness and the acceptance of death, it is both timeless and universal.
The Barracks is a beautiful book, tracing the power and pain that comes from self-awareness, the beauty of the everyday and the indomitable nature of the human heart to love and to fight on, against all odds.
We all know that we are going to die, the question that McGahern asks here, is when are we going to start living?
Masterpiece is a strong word, but, without doubt, The Barracks is just that.
READ ON: BOOK
NUMBER READ: 317
NUMBER REMAINING: 429
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!