Review: 'That They Might Face the Rising Sun'

Review of That They May Face the Rising Sun by John McGahern, reviewed by members of the Broken Key Book Club

This book is set around a lake in County Leitrim and provides an anecdotal account of one year in the life of Joe and Kate Rutledge, who have retired from England to return to his roots in Ireland. McGahern portrays a wider cross section of Irish rural life than memoirs such as Alice Taylor's To School Through The Fields.

The author uses the Rutledges as a framework for introducing a fascinating cast of local people and their extended families. Although the book appears to be about the experiences of this couple, the people with whom they interact are more colourful and play a stronger part in the novel. The memorable characters include James and Mary Murphy who rarely travel from their local area; John Quinn, a notorious womaniser; Kate's uncle The Shah; Bill Evans, a farmer who has been badly mistreated in his youth and James Murphy's brother who works at a Ford plant in England.

Although the characters are described subtly, the strength of their personalities comes across strongly and some people are larger than life. There are genuine examples of Irishness in the characterisation, e.g., James and Mary's unwillingness to tell their brother directly that they don't want him to move in with them when he loses his job and wants to return to Ireland.

The book is a calming and relaxing read in which the lack of division into chapters reflects the seamless passage of time, although this lack of structure irritated some of our readers. It provides a nostalgic review of life in rural Ireland in the middle of the 20th century, but we found it difficult to pinpoint the exact period. –Some parts are in keeping with our parents or our grandparents lives in rural Ireland in the 1930s, –other parts with references to dance-halls or relatively modern TV programmes, seem to be closer to the 1960s. We felt some scenes are unrealistic for any of these dates, e.g., the independence exhibited by John Quinn's wife when she walked out on their marriage.

Some readers criticised the book for its lack of a clear ending, others felt that the life choices, which many characters had to make during the year, resulted in a sense of completion.

We recommend this book enthusiastically for anyone who wants to read about a bygone era in Irish rural life in a gentle style that is reminiscent of Steinbeck.

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