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BY THE LAKE by John McGahern Kirkus Star


by John McGahern

Pub Date: March 11th, 2002
ISBN: 0-679-41914-4
Publisher: Knopf

An episodic and subtly elegiac group portrait of life in a contemporary Irish village: the sixth, and best, novel—and first in 12 years—from veteran author McGahern (Amongst Women, 1990, etc.).

Originally published in Great Britain as That They May Face the Rising Sun, it focuses on Joe and Kate Ruttledge, a former London couple who live modestly by working their small lakeside farm—and, with gradually increasing clarity and intensity, on the friends and neighbors whose intermittently shared lives become all but inseparable. McGahern introduces his characters in the most natural way imaginable—as casual visitors who drop in for a drink and a chat, and as subjects of stories they all tell about one another. Joe’s uncle, the wealthy businessman nicknamed “the Shah,” who conceals his lonely vulnerability beneath a veneer of brisk efficiency; neighbor Jamesie, a compulsive taleteller and gossip and his quiet wife Mary; aging pensioner Bill Evans, still traumatized by physical abuse he suffered in boyhood at the hands of wrathful priests; contractor Patrick Ryan, who never finishes anything he starts—professionally or personally; a genial Don Juan, John Quinn, who keeps finding propertied widows to marry: all become part of the comforting (and smothering) fabric that sustains the Ruttledges “by the lake,” impervious to the siren call of more lucrative employment in London. Very little happens, apart from Quinn’s incessant amours. Jamesie’s rootless brother Johnny, an annual visitor, may come “home” to stay; but the threat passes. The Shah retires, and his longtime employee manages (with Joe’s aid) to buy his business. Hints of more earthshaking occurrences follow the arrival of an otherwise typical spring, as local IRA leader Jimmy Joe McKiernan leads an “Easter March” through the hamlet that had thought itself immune to such “troubles.”

McGahern’s luminous threnody to the particulars and permutations of aging and change is captured in prose of the utmost simplicity and precision, keenly alert to the rhythms of lives lived close to the bone and in quiet harmony with the natural world.