That They May Face the Rising Sun by John McGahern and The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles

That They May Face the Rising Sun by John McGahern

This is the last book by this acclaimed Irish writer and my very happy introduction to his writing. Set in rural Ireland in a tiny community in the county of Leitrim, bordering the north, it tells the story of country folk over the course of a year, looks at their pleasures and sorrows, the impact of relationships, the central place of the land and of farming and the importance of neighbours for emotional and physical survival. The central characters are the Ruttledge couple who escaped London to consciously settle by the lakeside and find a new rhythm in their lives. They mutually support their neighbours, the unforgettable Jamesie and Mary, and we see their interaction with certain other clearly depicted characters.

Character is revealed through the nature of the farming year, the rites and rituals attached to the land: the haymaking and the lambing, the annual commemoration of the massacre at Glasdrum, the annual mart on Monaghan Day. The novel begins with a birth and ends with a funeral. McGahern has been likened to Chekhov, a playwright who also deals with a small number of characters to whom nothing much ostensibly happens, but who captures every essence of life in a brilliantly understated way with humour, understanding and compassion. Little happens, but everything that happens is news. There are many excellent one-liners, often delivered as banter, but wise. I took pleasure from the tiny nuances – the son who never returns home, the honesty of the unworldly chap who messes up the foolproof bank loan interview, the emotionally charged meetings where silence speaks volumes. McGahern’s descriptions of the natural world are beautifully observed; the lake and the land providing an order and an everlasting backdrop, reminding us that we are all ‘a puff of wind on the lake’.

The book has no chapters and no breaks. The story evolves slowly. I am left with a wonderful insight into a community on the cusp of change, the importance of the ordinary and the value of neighbourliness. The title reminds us that even in the late 70s/80s folk were buried with their faces pointing towards a new dawn and hope is always present.

[We have a copy of That They May Face the Rising Sun in the Library] 

The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles

Those who have read Amor Towles’ elegantly engrossing A Gentleman in Moscow will know that the action takes place within the confines of an hotel over a period of decades. For his latest novel, The Lincoln Highway, Towles spreads the action over half of the United States but compresses it into a matter of a few days.

It’s 1954 in Nebraska. Level-headed and likeable Emmett Watson returns home having served a sentence for involuntary manslaughter. But in the interim the family home has been sold, and Emmett and his younger brother, Billy, plan to head for California, to look for their mother who left them and their father with no explanation years before – and to start a new life. What they haven’t planned for is the arrival of two escapees –the dangerously charismatic Duchess (nicknamed after Dutchess County, NY) and easily led high-society scion Woolly Wolcott – who have a very different idea in mind. Thus the teenagers’ journey (or odyssey – there are plenty of classical allusions here) heads relentlessly east by means of road and rail rather than west by the Lincoln Highway.

Towles paints vivid word-pictures and conjures a cast of larger-than-life characters – I particularly enjoyed Professor Abernathe, the other-worldly author of young Billy’s Compendium of Heroes, Adventurers and Other Intrepid Travelers. The story is told via each of the protagonists, though intriguingly it is only Duchess who addresses us directly. Emmett’s moral code is challenged repeatedly, until a final confrontation with Duchess which has a touch of The Italian Job (or is that The Treasure of the Sierra Madre?) about it. Recommended.

[We have a copy of A Gentleman in Moscow in the Library]