The Barracks, John McGahern

Last night I finished reading my first McGahern, The Barracks.
Elizabeth is a former nurse who had lived in London and had an intense, volatile relationship with Halliday, an alcoholic doctor who later dies. Elizabeth returns to her rural Irish home and, by now in her late thirties, marries Reegan, the village police sargeant whose first wife died leaving him alone with three children. Elizabeth's former relationship with Halliday haunts the story in the form of letters saved, locked in her private trunk, along with money saved from her London days. Elizabeth loves her new family but there is no passion. We get glimpses of Elizabeth's unspent passion and intelligence, which adds the story all the more poignancy. She is, though, only too aware that she has breast cancer. Running through her acceptance, then panic, then seemingly savage medical treatment, then denial before the cycle repeating itself, is her husband's struggle. Desperate to leave his job, or slavery as he would have it, he has an ongoing, largely one-sided antagonism with his superintendent, Quirke. It is a relentless novel; relentessly bleak, yet relentlessly alive and conscious, and, coming as it does from Faber and Faber elegiac, poetic. Whilst written in the early sixties it reminded me very much of another Faber and Faber title, Peter Hobbs' debut novel, The Short Day Dying. It has also served the purpose of confirming for me where my tastes really lie in my reading - most of my favourite books are deeply melancholy - Revolutionary Road, The Easter Parade, Union Street, The Short Day Dying. I could go on.

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