Synopses & Reviews
With this magnificently assured new novel, John McGahern reminds us why he has been called the Irish Chekhov, as he guides readers into a village in rural Ireland and deftly, compassionately traces its natural rhythms and the inner lives of its people. Here are the Ruttledges, who have forsaken the glitter of London to raise sheep and cattle, gentle Jamesie Murphy, whose appetite for gossip both charms and intimidates his neighbors, handsome John Quinn, perennially on the look-out for a new wife, and the towns richest man, a gruff, self-made magnate known as “the Shah.”
Following his characters through the course of a year, through lambing and haying seasons, market days and family visits, McGahern lays bare their passions and regrets, their uneasy relationship with the modern world, their ancient intimacy with death.
"Ranks with the greatest Irish writers." New York Times Book Review
"This is a book to surrender yourself to. If you give in to its measured ebb and flow, you will find yourself in [a] world in which the simplest objects...take on a quiet but magical luminosity." The Economist
"This great and moving novel, which looks so quiet and provincial, opens out through its small frame to our most troubling and essential questions." The Observer
"A superb, earthly pastoral...a knowing, quick-witted performance; a tale of chat, much gossip, a whiff of menace...McGahern, a supreme chronicler [of] the closing chapters of traditional Irish rural life, has created a novel that lives and breathes." The Irish Times
"When nature is rendered as vividly as this, it changes the character of fiction....McGahern has captured the ties of custom and affection that bind people to the land-and to each other." Sunday Telegraph
"[McGahern has] an uncanny knack of homing in on the definitive moment, the illuminating detail." The Independent
"At last an Irish author has awakened from the nightmare of history and given us a sense of liberation which is not dependent on flight or emigration or escape." The Guardian
"McGahern is never sentimental, and the novel's greatest pleasures come from the unflinching probity of his observations." New Yorker
"It's difficult to suppress a yawn at the announcement of yet another great Irish novel. At this point, it would be easier for a bad one to make headlines. Still it's got to be said By the Lake
, the latest from John McGahern, is wonderful. Nothing happens in it except for the rustle through a year with a few villagers, but the life McGahern resurrects here sounds like the melody of a forgotten favorite song. Indeed, no body of water has been so lovingly revered since Henry David Thoreau went to the woods." Ron Charles, The Christian Science Monitor
(read the entire CSM review
The writer who has been called the Irish Chekhov guides readers into a fictional village in rural Ireland and deftly explores its natural rhythms and the inner lives of its inhabitants.
The characters in By the Lake include the Ruttledges, who have forsaken the glitter of London to raise sheep and cattle, gossip-mongering Jamesie Murphy, handsome John Quinn perennially on the lookout for a new wife as well as the gruff self-made magnate known as "the Shah." Through the course of a year, John McGahern unveils their passions and regrets, their uneasy relationship with the modern world and their ancient intimacy with death. And he creates a novel at once lyrical and slyly comic, earthy, melancholy, and transcendently lovely.
About the Author
John McGahern was the author of five highly acclaimed novels and four collections of short stories. His novel Amongst Women won the GPA Book Award and the Irish Times Award, was short-listed for the Booker Prize, and was made into a four-part BBC television series. He had been a visiting professor at Colgate University and at the University of Victoria, British Columbia, and was the recipient of the Society of Authors' Award, the American-Irish Award, and the Prix Étrangère Ecureuil, among other awards and honors. His work appeared in anthologies and was translated into many languages. He died in 2006.
Reading Group Guide
“Ranks with the greatest Irish writers.” —The New York Times Book Review
The introduction, discussion questions, suggestions for further reading, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your groups reading of By the Lake, John McGaherns most ambitious, generous, and superbly realized novel to date. We hope they will provide you with interesting ways to talk about this beautifully paced story that brings to vivid life the world and the people of a contemporary Irish village.
1. Why does McGahern open the novel with the image of stillness on the lake? Why are the swans, the lake, the heron, the farm animals, and the changing seasons constantly juxtaposed against the human action related in these pages? Which descriptive passages are most striking? What is Joe Ruttledges relationship to nature, his farm, and his animals?
2. McGahern introduces a number of characters in the Ruttledges circle: Jamesie and Mary, Johnny, Patrick Ryan, John Quinn, and the Shah, among others. How does McGahern make these people seem real? What are their defining qualities? Which characters are most likeable and why?
3. When asked whats wrong with his life in London, Joe Ruttledge replies, “Nothing but its not my country and I never feel its quite real or that my life there is real. That has its pleasant side as well. You never feel responsible or fully involved in anything that happens” [p. 23]. How is Joes reply to Jimmy Joe McKiernan understood in the context of the rest of the novel?
4. How does McGahern use the character of Johnny to depict the emigrants life and the painful uprooting of so many of the Irish who left home? When Jamesie says, “Hed have been better if hed shot himself instead of the dogs” [p. 9], what does he mean? How welcome is Johnny when he comes home?
5. The brutality of Bill Evanss life as an orphan [pp. 10-16] casts a shadow on the kindly behavior that seems to pervade the novel. How has Bill Evans, now an old man, been scarred by his experiences? Why is Joe Ruttledge willing to be unfailingly generous and patient with Bill Evans?
6. By the Lake is a novel of manners that, like the work of Jane Austen, scrutinizes the ways in which human beings interact in a small community. What is most noticeable about how Joe, Kate, Jamesie, and Mary behave toward one another? How important are the qualities of generosity, humor, and patience? Why is so much careful attention paid to certain ceremonial aspects of life, such as when the Ruttledges host a dinner party for Jamesies extended family
7. There is much talk in By the Lake; the rhythms of talk and the sound of human voices are central to the novel. Why is Jamesie so thirsty for gossip? Why is the need for stories so important in a small rural community? Why do some people reveal a lot about themselves, while some reveal almost nothing? For instance, why do we learn so little of Joe Ruttledges private life while we learn so much of John Quinns?
8. The novel is marked by a distinct lack of action. At one point, Joe realizes, “The days were quiet. They did not feel particularly quiet or happy but through them ran the sense, like an underground river, that there would come a time when these days would be looked back on as happiness, all that life could give of contentment and peace” [p. 234]. Why is contentment difficult to describe within the conventional expectations of plot in fiction?
9. Writing in The New York Times Book Review, John Sutherland pointed out that “One cannot appreciate McGaherns prose unless one understands the strenuous purging that produces his final text. For every published page, he writes about six that are discarded. The By the Lake we have is the redaction of a novel of more than a thousand pages. Pruning is the essence of McGaherns art.” What light does this shed on the novels prose style, its structure, and the arc of time it covers?
10. Given that Jamesie and Joe are very good friends, is it surprising that Joe refuses to speak about the reason he and Kate have no children? Does the episode of the black lamb shed any light on this issue? How does McGahern comment on the curious relationship between what is shared and what is kept private in such a tiny community?
11. Does Joe Ruttledge, given his education and his time spent in London, fit in socially when he comes to live by the lake? Are Joe and Kate unusual in their willingness to give up a cosmopolitan life for a rural backwater? Does McGahern imply that it takes a very alert, observant sensibility to enjoy life in such a quiet place?
12. Why are details of historical time, as well as the characters ages, deliberately withheld? How relevant is the fact that this community is close to the border with Northern Ireland, or that we hear of an atrocity that took place at nearby Enniskillen? What is the significance of Jamesies story about the ambush by the Black and Tans, which is commemorated every year [pp. 271-278]?
13. Discuss the crisis caused by Johnnys decision to return home to live with Jamesie and Mary. The narrator tells us: “The timid, gentle manners, based on a fragile interdependence, dealt in avoidances and obfuscations. Edges were softened, ways found round harsh realities. What was unspoken was often far more important than the words that were said. . . . It was a language that hadnt any simple way of saying no” [p. 210]. What is valuable, and what is less so, about such manners? Is Joe right to offer to intervene in this family matter?
14. What narrative effect is achieved by the description of the laying out of Johnnys body? Why does Joe volunteer to do this? How important is the fact that the novel includes a death, a wake, and a funeral? Why does the story end as it does, with the shed unfinished, and Ruttledge thinking that hell decide whether to take Patrick Ryan up on the offer to finish it?
15. Some of the most important questions addressed by this novel were asked by reviewer Hermione Lee, who wrote in the London Observer: “This great and moving novel, which looks so quiet and provincial, opens out through its small frame to our most troubling and essential questions. How well do we remember? How do we make our choices in life? Why do we need repetition? What is to remain of us? Above all, what can happiness consist in?” How does McGaherns novel address these issues?