Sunday, March 16, 2008

"By the Lake" (2003), John McGahern

The morning was clear. 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.

"A great stillness" begins John McGahern's last novel By the Lake (2003; he died in 2006) in which the quiet Irish countryside plays an equal, if not greater, part in the telling of the story than the lives of its characters. Yet this pastoral novel of unassuming title in which not much happens is a pleasure that rewards a slow and steady reading. That's not to say that the small human dramas of rural life don't loom large to these folk; their comings and goings and loves and losses and jealousies are important to them, but the hay must still be cut and the animals fed.

On the television forecast of the night before, the map of Ireland was shown covered with small suns, like laughing apples. Soon after midday all the small meadows were tedded. By evening the mown grass rustled like hay to the touch. The next day they were swept into rows. The swept ground between the rows had already turned golden. Because of Jamesie's anxiety Ruttledge went round the shore to bale his meadows first. Kate came with him to help stack the bales. Though balers were a familiar sight in the meadows for years, Jamesie watched in a kind of disbelief as the cumbersome red machine gathered in the loose rows and spat them out in neat tied bales.

Such an unhurried life appeals to the Ruttledges, who forsake London to live by the lake to raise sheep and cattle. The gossip Jamesie courts his Mary, and "the Shah" is the town's richest man driving the country lanes in his Mercedes. It would be difficult to imagine much less of a plot than the simple yearly progression of haying and lambing, shearing and, yes, slaughter. Yet that is precisely what happens, and the regularity with which these characters attend to the ordinariness of their lives becomes the motion of the story.

The Shah rolled around the lake with the sheepdog in the front of the car every Sunday and stayed until he was given his tea at six. Some days during the week he came in the evenings as well. On dry Sundays he liked to walk the fields, and to look at the cattle and sheep and the small wooded island out in the back lake where the herons nested, and to look across the lake to the acres of pale sedge of Gloria Bog, which ran like an inland sea until it met the blue of the lower slopes of the mountains where his life began, the stunted birch trees like small green flowers in the wilderness of bog.

As one reviewer notes, it's hard to suppress a yawn at the announcement of "yet another great Irish novel." By the Lake may be one, although one whose charms may not be readily apparent. At base level, the novel reminds us that the hurry-up world in which most of us find ourselves in is the artificial one: the reviewer concludes that "it's easy, though sad, to imagine readers who will find this an interminable bore. A lake is not a river, after all; it doesn't go anywhere." Those expecting great events or major happenings in the slow progress of the seasons will likely be disappointed. Near its calm shores and with its unassuming humanity, By the Lake offers reassurance, and a great stillness.

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