"By the Lake" by John McGahern

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Now I want to move to Ireland. After listening to the lilting, fluid conversational rhythms in John McGahern’s By the Lake, I can’t wait to pull up stakes and move to the Sacred Sod. It doesn’t hurt that the late Mr. McGahern set all these charming spoken words in the mortar of his own graceful narrative. The whole is more than agreeable, it’s enchanting. I’m sorry I finished, and that doesn’t happen for me that often.

And I do admire By the Lake, make no mistake. We witness the cycle of the agricultural year in a vaguely-identified region of the Republic of Ireland. It might be County Donegal, but it doesn’t matter. Joe Ruttledge and his wife Kate live next to a lake, raise sheep along with a few cattle, and are much admired and loved in the community, particularly by their lakeside neighbors, Jamesie and Mary Murphy. This is a quiet community, encompassing a small market town, and Jamesie is well known for his nosy nature and his innocent, innocuous ways. Other characters aren’t quite so sympathetic, but their discourse and their manners always adhere to a carefully respectful, even sunny, code. Events flow like a stream that never overruns its banks. The egotist remarries later in life, only to find a bride – and her entire family – reject him. Crops are brought in with neighbors’ help, livestock taken to market, construction projects proceed, folks pass away, and atheists and priests are on friendly terms. The conflicts all play out in confidential conversations, it seems. No one does anything rude or aggressive in By the Lake, but the strife of conflicting interests unwinds its tense energy below the surface nonetheless.

So what commends this book to our attention? Here’s what: the unceasing and beautiful description of nature in rural Ireland, and how it dictates these farmers’ agendas; the awe-inspiring and delightful diction of Irish conversation, here faithfully tendered; the glowing significance inhering to everyday objects and statements, given them by this lovely soup of emotion and honor. There is a lot of folk wisdom contained herein, and we can all take a lesson – or any number of lessons – from this novel’s poetically-spoken characters.

I recommend this joy of a novel to anyone interested in an ennobling narrative, set in the hearts and minds of some earthy – not simple – Irish country folk. Take and enjoy!

"Bloodroot" by Amy Greene

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Events in Amy Greene’s captivating, soulful Bloodroot swirl around Myra Lamb, a pretty girl from the hills of Appalachia. This is yet another stunning debut piece from an author with superior gifts. You will get a full, rich read here, as each of a selected handful of characters narrates a first-person segment of this saga. And “saga” captures the tone perfectly – the harrowing detail of these hard-luck stories of abuse, neglect, and dissipation, and the depth of emotion call the word “epic” to mind.

Myra, very much a free-spirited girl, loses her parents when but a tot, and Byrdie, her Granny, rears her.   Byrdie in her turn was also raised by her grandmother and great aunts, all of whom were blessed with some version of “the sight,” an occult ability to perceive, predict, or influence forces beyond the natural. Byrdie pursues a fairly relaxed regimen with Myra’s upbringing, having hated restrictions when she was young. She also believes Myra has the gift, but frets over the girl’s wild and willful ways.

Myra’s strong will does indeed get her into trouble. She meets the physically beautiful John Odom and must have him for herself. She even casts a spell to ensnare him, patterned after one her great-great grandmother used decades before.  John turns out abusive, oppressive, and shockingly violent, the same as the rest of his creepy family. Myra and John say they are bad for each other, but it’s hard to see what Myra might have done to deserve such suffering at the hands of her husband.

The author uses a very elegant structure to capture all of this story’s threads. I’ve seen it said that writers make their readers want to go to a certain place, but shouldn’t take them there. Ms. Greene does one better. She takes her entire novel to lead her readers to a certain conclusion, only to place a very oblique, almost wistful, version of it in the very last voice we expect. The diction and speech patterns come from Appalachian hill country, and strike the perfect note, with subtle differences from character to character.

Bloodroot is such exceptional storytelling – it’s organic, it flows as the blood-red sap of the plant of the title. Its force derives not only from the harrowing and inexcusable weaknesses of its characters, but also from the subtle and inexorable pull of family and kin, for better or for worse. Be prepared to accompany and suffer with Myra, a very memorable fiction in herself, and honor and acclaim the amazing arrival of a terrific new author.