Amongst Women

John McGahern

Faber & Faber 1990
A book review by Danny Yee © 2011
Moran, a partisan leader during the Irish War of Independence, has never readjusted to normal life; he is so protective of his independence that he stays aloof from village society and spurns the compromises necessary for friendship. He needs to be in control and, uncertain of himself, has to continually prove his dominance over his wife and children. His two sons cope badly with this — Luke has abandoned the family entirely and moved to London — but his three daughters and his second wife have learned ways of managing, adapting to his ways and supporting one another.

Amongst Women is held together by the strands of personal change and family dynamics rather than by any kind of plot as such. It starts in the present — "As he weakened, Moran became afraid of his daughters" — but then goes back to recount episodes spread over the previous decades. The end of Moran's last friendship. Moran's re-marriage to Rose, which only happens through her careful planning. His son Michael's attempts to escape the restrictions of the family. His daughters' successful escape, through education, employment and marriage. And, through all of this, the persistence of the binding ties of love and family, fraught though they be.

The rural Irish setting is also compelling. The very distance of the Morans from village life helps to highlight the power of custom and conformity. The family's work on the farm — Moran also receives a war pension — gives a feel for rural working life. And we get a perspective on the roles of education and emigration in changing Irish society, and on the failure of religion to offer any counter to that, even where it preserves its outward power. All of this is presented in passing, however, and never takes the focus.

There are few things in Amongst Women that aren't completely convincing. A scene where Moran is reminiscing with an old comrade over their feats during the war contains some unlikely dialogue, clearly aimed at the reader. The relationships between Rose and her step-daughters might seem a little too good to be entirely plausible, but make sense in their context.

This is a finely written novel and a moving study in human strength and human frailty.

July 2011

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%T Amongst Women
%A McGahern, John
%I Faber & Faber
%D 1990
%O paperback
%G ISBN 057116160X
%P 184pp