McGahern's 'By the Lake' -- the lyric of ritual

March 03, 2002|By A. J. Sherman | By A. J. Sherman,Special to the Sun

By the Lake, by John McGahern. Knopf. 336 pages. $24.

John McGahern enchants with simplicity and eloquence the more impressive because understated. Before we are aware he has done it, let alone how, we are drawn into his corner of remote rural Ireland, its characters and their lives.

"The morning was clear," he begins. "There was no wind on the lake. There was also a great stillness. When the bells rang out for Mass, the strokes trembling on the water, they had the entire world to themselves." In that reverberant silence, we want to read on because we are in the hands of a master storyteller whose narrative voice never flags.

There are no major dramas in this novel: there is instead the richness of the quotidian, a vivid evocation of natural and human variety. The Ireland McGahern faithfully records is that of several decades ago, before the intrusion of prosperity. It is still a place young people abandon, most migrating overseas, and for good. The departures of friends and relatives and awareness of a faraway Irish diaspora, suffuse the unnamed community with an underlying ache of longing.

The village on the lake, observed with unsentimental affection, is a microcosm in which the parish priest is still consulted in most major decisions, and the rhythms of the agricultural year, the prescribed rituals attending life and death, are fixed, understood and almost universally observed.

Part of the foreboding we feel as we read stems from our knowledge that this little group of lake-dwellers, whom we come to know and care for, are threatened like small tribes everywhere, about to lose their unique culture as television sets flicker on in the local pubs and even some of the low-ceilinged smokey houses. Inevitable change is in the air: an unsettling trickle of money has begun to flow, and a few villagers are starting to experiment with holidays on the Continent. Irish talk, that great sparkle of wit, storytelling, aggression, is about to falter, silenced by the flood of global chatter from the tube.

Irish voices are still lovely here, though, and McGahern has a faultless ear for them: "The screech she let out would put your heart crossways." "The people around this lake were always known to be a holy living terror for news." "On such an Easter morning, we were always shown the sun: Look how the molten globe and all the glittering rays are dancing." "He that is down can fear no fall." If the lilt of Irish speech is sometimes formulaic, with predictable invocations of God or saints, brutal putdowns, or broad humor, it can startle with fresh and sometimes haunting lyricism.

As we are led through the seasons, through weddings, wakes and other social occasions invariably lubricated by drink, we understand that, as one farmer predicts, "anybody with livestock is going to have deadstock"; that attachment and often wrenching loss are inseparable. We are left with regret for the passage of the year, but confidence that these villagers will endure, and rise to the promise of what may come. "How," muses one woman, "can time be gathered in and kissed?" John McGahern has shown us how.

A. J. Sherman's most recent book is Mandate Days: British Lives in Palestine, 1918-1948. A writer and foundation consultant, he is an associate fellow of St. Antony's College, Oxford, and lives in Vermont.

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