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John McGahern. Ways of Looking: strategies brought into focus

This well-written and accessible study demonstrates how McGahern continues to fascinate and draw new readers

John McGahern Ways of Looking
Author: John Singleton
ISBN-13: 978-1032285412
Publisher: Routledge Studies in Irish Literature
Guideline Price: £130

This latest study of John McGahern in the impressive Routledge Studies in Irish Literature series is an important contribution to the ever-expanding critical attention the Leitrim writer has received since his death in 2006. John Singleton has divided the book into four parts which follow the chronological evolution of the oeuvre under the headings Plato’s Cave; the heterotopia; the Halfway House and the Fifth Province.

The early stage, consisting of The Barracks, The Dark and the first short story collection, Nightlines, presents a self-enclosed world that “reveals partition and alienation within supposedly unified space”, most often the family home, where characters have difficulty escaping from a stultifying Plato’s Cave. The middle period, covering The Leavetaking, The Pornographer and the short story collections Getting Through and High Ground, is more urban-based, subject to “Foucauldian heterotopias”, a term Singleton explains as “spaces that are somehow Other, parallel to society”. Here, individuals sometimes experience a more wholesome encounter with other people – witness Isobel and Nurse Brady who offer the possibility of a more fulfilling life to the male protagonists in the two novels of this period.

I would agree with Singleton that the mature period of McGahern’s literary output is one where the return to the customary rural location does not stifle characters’ development to the same extent as in the early work. However, even if the tone of That They May Face the Rising Sun is markedly more pastoral and celebratory than previous works, there is still plenty of familial tension and violence in Amongst Women. The image of a dying Moran walking the fields at the back of his house and “seeing” for the first time “what an amazing glory he was part of” brings to mind how “looking” and “seeing” are very different. By choosing “Ways of Looking” as the sub-title of his study, Singleton foregrounds the literary strategies employed by McGahern in paving the way for the moments of catharsis that one encounters in Memoir, which discloses “how the writing of fiction shaped his [McGahern’s] life even as he was living it”.

This well-written and accessible study demonstrates how the work of John McGahern continues to fascinate and draw new readers. It is a shining example of how insightful criticism unveils fresh “ways of looking” at literary texts.