by John McGahern
Knopf, 352 pages, $24.00
The Irish writer John McGahern's sixth novel stands in marked contrast to its predecessor, Amongst Women (1990), a prizewinning portrait of intransigent age. Joe and Kate Ruttledge keep a bit of livestock on their property alongside a small lake, but they don't depend on farming—which only makes them more keenly alive to the land and the weather in this Celtic pastoral. Lambing, haymaking, the rituals of tea and whiskey, the berries turning ripe and leaves falling in "ghostly whispering streams": the almost plotless narration follows the lake for just over a year, repeating some descriptions word for word, like proverbs, as spring comes round again. McGahern's work has always suggested what Chekhov would have been like if he'd read D. H. Lawrence; yet here the dark core of passion that got McGahern in trouble with Ireland's censors in the 1960s has been supplanted by an equally risky tenderness. By the Lake wagers everything on an attempt to make contentment look interesting, and its account of an apparently unchanging world depends on the cunning of its structure. In his early pages McGahern skillfully blurs the line between past and present as his characters tell one story after another; only later do we realize that he has never quite provided either the date of the book's action or the ages of his protagonists. Joe Ruttledge, who has local roots in the land, has been disclassed by education and a previous career in London. But McGahern barely glances at Joe's decision to leave the city behind, and never allows him to think about the past. It's as if other times and other places don't count; the present is eternal.
Or is it? The lake of the title lies somewhere in the north of the Irish Republic, not far from that border with the other north, a fact that McGahern's characters are mostly able to forget and that the reader will too—until near the end of this subtly intricate book. For this bucolic world has seen terror and cruelty, and even now has its full share of damaged souls. The Ruttledges have managed to avoid most of that. But they, too, have suffered, through a childlessness that they can no longer think about, and McGahern's achievement in this autumnal novel is to remind us how much even a happy life can know of sorrow.
by Eugene McCabe
Bloomsbury, 231 pages, $23.95