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"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!


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