Although published in 2002, McGahern’s last novel has no tangible sense of time – apart from a reference to watching ‘Blind Date’ and the recent Enniskillen bombing, this could be set anytime in the 20th century. Set in rural Leitrim amongst a smattering of houses around a lake, this is a novel where time is of little importance. It follows a year in the life of the Ruttledges, a married couple who have moved back to Ireland from England to live a simple, peaceful existence in Joe Ruttledge’s childhood village. It is a spectacularly beautiful piece of work, where the passing of time is marked by the changes in the countryside. McGahern gives the lake itself such prominence in the novel with lyrical descriptions that it seems to be a character in itself, one that observes the lifespans of the humans living on its shore. The other characters use it as a barometer for their own existence: “We’re no more than a puff of wind out on the lake.”
Many of the characters are in their twilight years – although their ages are not stated, Joe and Kate are near retirement and their friends Jamesie and Mary have an adult son, whose visit to his parents allows for a mirroring of the passage of time as shown through the description of the changing seasons. Mary’s reaction to her son’s visit is very moving and this pondering of the frailty of the human lifespan underpins a lot of the novel – which is appropriate for a novelist nearing the end of his own life:
“Mary stood mutely gazing on her son and his wife as if in wonderment how so much time had disappeared and emerged again in such strange and substantial forms that were and were not her own. Across her face there seemed to pass many feelings and reflections: it was as if she ached to touch and gather in and make whole those scattered years of change. But how can time be gathered in and kissed? There is only flesh.”
I’ve always been a huge fan of McGahern’s work and the delicate, quiet lyricism of his writing. This is a masterpiece of a novel, filled with beautiful phrasing and thought-provoking observations that probe rather than bludgeon.
“The very idea was as dangerous as presumptive speech: happiness could not be sought or worried into being, or even fully grasped; it should not be allowed its own slow pace so that it passes unnoticed, if it ever comes at all.”