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By the Lake

By the Lake

3.5 2
by John McGahern

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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,


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 town’s 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.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Ranks with the greatest Irish writers: Joyce, Yeats, Synge, Beckett, Heaney.” -The New York Times Book Review

“Subtly intricate. . . . McGahern’s achievement in this autumnal novel is to remind us how much even a happy life can know of sorrow.” -The Atlantic Monthly

“Every so often a book comes along that captures people, landscape and place in such a perfect rendering that you would recognize it instantly. . .By the Lake now moves onto this very short list.”–The Seattle Times

“Deceptively wise. . . . Possesses the warm certainty of a writer who loves and respects every character . . . rascals and heroes alike, and who wants to deliver them to us in all their dimensions.” -The Boston Globe

“The most perfect novel I’ve read in years.” –Malcolm Jones, Newsweek

“Ireland’s finest living fiction writer. . . .A gripping, poignant book.” –Chicago Tribune

“This is the Irish temper, free of all the caricatures. . . . Writing this true, this unaffected–no wonder we celebrate the Irish.” –The Dallas Morning News

“Wonderful. . . . No body of water has been so lovingly revered since Henry David Thoreau went to the woods."”–The Christian Science Monitor

“Has the appeal of a letter from home. . . . Wonderfully engaging.” –Newsday

“His lyrical, almost painterly evocation of the activities he knows so intimately is well-displayed here.”–The Washington Post

“Stumbling upon a novel like By the Lake is as rare a pleasure as finding an unspoiled country hideaway.” –Minneapolis Star-Tribune

“McGahern enchants with simplicity and eloquence. . . . we are drawn into his corner of remote rural Ireland, its characters and their lives.” –The Baltimore Sun

“McGahern's luminous threnody to the particulars and permutations of aging and change is captured in prose of the utmost simplicity and precision.” –Kirkus Reviews (starred)

“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 Guardian

“This is a book to surrender yourself to. . . . you will find yourself in an intense, poetic world in which the simplest objects. . .take on a quiet but magical luminosity.”–The Economist

“One of Ireland's most stupendous prose stylists, with an uncanny knack of homing in on the definitive moment, the illuminating detail.” –The Independent

“This beautiful novel . . . bestows on the reader one of the principal gifts of fiction: that of having one's experience enlarged by a process of intense, almost resistless sympathy. Through intense concentration on the local, McGahern has again found a route to the universal.” –The Times Literary Supplement

“A superb, earthly pastoral . . . a knowing, quick-witted performance . . . 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 (London)

Publishers Weekly
McGahern (Amongst Women, etc.) expertly captures the rhythms of smalltown Irish life in a graceful but underplotted novel that takes a diverse and gregarious cast of local characters through a transitional period in a lakeside village. Much of the narrative revolves around the daily life of the Ruttledges, a farming couple who become the focal point of the village's social interaction after they leave the London rat race for a more peaceful life. The most engaging and colorful characters in the book are John Quinn, a local womanizer whose life becomes a source of gossip and controversy when his bride leaves him right after the wedding, and a figurehead known as "the Shah," the richest man in the village, whose decision to sell his business represents a turning point in the town's way of life. Lurking in the background is a shadier political figure, Jimmy Joe McKiernan, whose involvement with the IRA poses a different kind of threat to the rhythms of daily life whenever a bout of upheaval and violence erupts. McGahern gets plenty of mileage from the poignant scenes describing the rituals and chores of farming along with the common social affairs that form the backbone of daily life, but the absence of a strong story line reduces this book to an extended character study. The author's warm, flowing prose makes that study an enjoyable read, but readers who pick this up based on McGahern's track record for well-reviewed and award-winning novels may find themselves disappointed. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Just as one of the characters in this novel walks into his neighbor's house and joins in an ongoing conversation, so the reader enters the lives of these people, who live near a lake in northwestern Ireland. McGahern presents Joe Ruttledge and his wife, Kate, who have moved from London to this rural area and interact on a daily basis with neighbors Jamesie Murphy and his wife, Mary. Also in the picture are Bill Evans, an oddball old-timer; John Quinn, who has marital and sexual problems; and Patrick Ryan, a neighborhood fix-it man who is supposed to be building a new shed on the Ruttledge's property. During the course of a year, a wedding and a funeral take place, along with events such as the cutting and tedding of hay and the livestock auction on Monaghan Day. Though the book is timeless and remote in setting, the political and social forces of Ireland's turbulent history do intrude occasionally. This is not a plot-driven page-turner, as McGahern, a highly regarded Irish author of novels and stories (e.g., Amongst Women), chooses to accentuate the small talk and daily routines of his characters. The novel gathers force as the personalities and customs of rural life ring true and move according to their own rhythms. Recommended for academic and larger public library fiction collections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 11/15/01.] Jim Coan, SUNY at Oneonta Lib. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
New Yorker
This stately novel by one of Ireland's foremost writers is, as its title suggests, primarily about the rhythms and cadences of place. The story is an old one: in search of a quieter way of life, Joe and Kate Ruttledge have traded their careers in London for a farm near a small Irish village, where they learn how to raise sheep and are steadily drawn into the lives of their neighbors. There's the Shah, a rich bachelor in search of an heir for his business; John Quinn, a weaselly sexual predator, and a danger to women throughout the county; and Jimmy Joe McKiernan, an I.R.A. leader whose exploits periodically stir up high feeling. McGahern is never sentimental, and the novel's greatest pleasures come from the unflinching probity of his observations: he writes as crisply about the parsimony of a neighbor or sending lambs to be slaughtered as he does about the notion that happiness "should be allowed its own slow pace so that it passes unnoticed, if it ever comes at all."
Kirkus Reviews
An episodic and subtly elegiac group portrait of life in a contemporary Irish village: the sixth, and best, novel-and first in 12 years-from veteran author McGahern (Amongst Women, 1990, etc.). Originally published in Great Britain as That They May Face the Rising Sun, it focuses on Joe and Kate Ruttledge, a former London couple who live modestly by working their small lakeside farm-and, with gradually increasing clarity and intensity, on the friends and neighbors whose intermittently shared lives become all but inseparable. McGahern introduces his characters in the most natural way imaginable-as casual visitors who drop in for a drink and a chat, and as subjects of stories they all tell about one another. Joe's uncle, the wealthy businessman nicknamed "the Shah," who conceals his lonely vulnerability beneath a veneer of brisk efficiency; neighbor Jamesie, a compulsive taleteller and gossip and his quiet wife Mary; aging pensioner Bill Evans, still traumatized by physical abuse he suffered in boyhood at the hands of wrathful priests; contractor Patrick Ryan, who never finishes anything he starts-professionally or personally; a genial Don Juan, John Quinn, who keeps finding propertied widows to marry: all become part of the comforting (and smothering) fabric that sustains the Ruttledges "by the lake," impervious to the siren call of more lucrative employment in London. Very little happens, apart from Quinn's incessant amours. Jamesie's rootless brother Johnny, an annual visitor, may come "home" to stay; but the threat passes. The Shah retires, and his longtime employee manages (with Joe's aid) to buy his business. Hints of more earthshaking occurrences follow the arrival of an otherwisetypical spring, as local IRA leader Jimmy Joe McKiernan leads an "Easter March" through the hamlet that had thought itself immune to such "troubles." McGahern's luminous threnody to the particulars and permutations of aging and change is captured in prose of the utmost simplicity and precision, keenly alert to the rhythms of lives lived close to the bone and in quiet harmony with the natural world.

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Vintage International Series
Edition description:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.20(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.80(d)

Read an Excerpt

The morning was clear. There was no wind on the lake. There was also a great stillness. When the bells rang out for Mass, the strokes trembling on the water, they had the entire world to themselves.

The doors of the house were open. Jamesie entered without knocking and came in noiselessly until he stood in the doorway of the large room where the Ruttledges were sitting. He stood as still as if waiting under trees for returning wildfowl. He expected his discovery to be quick. There would be a cry of surprise and reproach; he would counter by accusing them of not being watchful enough. There would be welcome and laughter. When the Ruttledges continued to converse calmly about a visit they were expecting that same afternoon, he could contain himself no longer. Such was his continual expectation of discovery that in his eavesdropping he was nearly always disappointed by the innocence he came upon.

" Hel-lo. Hel-lo. Hel-lo," he called out softly, in some exasperation.

" Jamesie!" They turned to the voice with great friendliness. As he often stole silently in, they showed no surprise. " You are welcome."

" Ye are no good. I have been standing here for several minutes and haven't heard a bad word said about anybody yet. Not a bad word," he repeated with mocking slowness as he came forward.

" We never speak badly about people. It's too dangerous. It can get you into trouble."

" Then ye never speak or if you do the pair of yous are not worth listening to."

In his dark Sunday suit, white shirt, red tie, polished black shoes, the fine silver hair brushed back from the high forehead and sharp clean features, he was shining and handsome. An intense vividness and sweetness of nature showed in every quick, expressive movement. " Kate." He held out an enormous hand. She pretended to be afraid to trust her hand to such strength. It was a game he played regularly. For him all forms of social intercourse were merely different kinds of play. " God hates a coward, Kate," he demanded, and she took his hand.

Not until she cried, " Easy there, Jamesie," did he release his gently tightening grip with a low crow of triumph. " You are one of God's troopers, Kate. Mister Ruttledge," he bowed solemnly.

" Mister Murphy."

" No misters here," he protested. " No misters in this part of the world. Nothing but broken-down gentlemen."

" There are no misters in this house either. He that is down can fear no fall."

" Why don't you go to Mass, then, if you are that low?" Jamesie changed the attack lightly.

" What's that got to do with it?"

" You'd be like everybody else round here by now if you went to Mass."

" I'd like to attend Mass. I miss going."

" What's keeping you, then?"

" I don't believe."

" I don't believe," he mimicked. " None of us believes and we go. That's no bar."

" I'd feel a hypocrite. Why do you go if you don't believe?"

" To look at the girls. To see the whole performance," he cried out, and started to shake with laughter. " We go to see all the other hypocrites. Kate, what do you think about all this? You've hardly said a word."

" My parents were atheists," Kate said. " They thought that all that exists is what you see, all that you are is what you think and appear to be."

" Give them no heed, Kate," he counselled gently. " You are what you are and to hell with the begrudgers." " The way we perceive ourselves and how we are perceived are often very different," Ruttledge said.

" Pay no heed to him either. He's just trying to twist and turn. Thought pissed in the bed and thought he was sweating. His wife thought otherwise. You'll get on good as any of them, Kate." He took pruning shears from his pocket and placed them on the table. " Thanks," he said. " They were a comfort. Pure Sheffield. Great steel."

" I bought them from a stall in the Enniskillen market one Thursday. They weren't expensive."

" The North," he raised his hand for emphasis. " The North is a great place for bargains."

" Would you like a whiskey, Jamesie?" she asked.

" Now you're talking, Kate. But you should know by now that 'wilya' is a very bad word."

" Why bad?"

" Look at yer man," he pointed to where Ruttledge had already taken glasses and a bottle of Powers from the cupboard and was running water into a brown jug.

" I'm slow."

" You're not one bit slow, Kate. You just weren't brought up here. You nearly have to be born into a place to know what's going on and what to do."

" He wasn't brought up here."

" Not too far off, near enough to know. He wasn't at school but he met the scholars. Good health! And more again tomorrow," he raised his glass. " The crowd lying below in Shruhaun aren't drinking any drinks today."

" Good luck. What's the news?"

" No news. Came looking for news," he cried ritually, and then could contain his news no longer: " Johnny's coming home from England. He's coming home this Tuesday. Mary got the letter."

Every summer his brother Johnny came home on holidays from the Ford factory at Dagenham. He had left for England twenty years before and never missed a summer coming home. " I'd be glad to run you to the station," Ruttledge offered.

" I know that well, and thanks, but no, no." He raised the hand again. " Always go in Johnny Rowley's car. Jim is meeting Johnny at the airport and putting him on the train. Jim is taking time off."

Jim was Jamesie and Mary's only child, who had been clever at school, had entered the civil service, where he had risen to a high position, and was married with four children in Dublin.

" There was a time Johnny spent the night with Jim and Lucy in Dublin."

" Not any more. Johnny and Lucy don't pull. He's not awanted. It's better, better by far the way it is. I'll meet the train with Johnny Rowley. We'll have several stops on the way from the station. When we get to the house, Mary will put the sirloin down. You can't get meat in England. You'd just love to see Johnny's face and the way he says 'God bless you, Mary' when she puts the sirloin in front of him on the table."

The house and the outhouses would be freshly whitewashed for the homecoming, the street swept, the green gates painted, old stakes replaced in the netting wire that held Mary's brown hens in the space around the hayshed. Mary would have scrubbed and freshened all the rooms. Together they would have taken the mattress from the bed in the lower room, Johnny's old room, and left it outside to air in the sun. The holy pictures and the wedding photographs would be taken down, the glass wiped and polished. His bed would be made with crisp linen and draped with the red blanket. An enormous vase of flowers from the garden and the fields—roses and lilies and sweet william from the garden, foxglove and big sprays of honeysuckle from the hedges—would be placed on the sill under the open window to sweeten the air and take away the staleness and smell of damp from the unused room. The order for the best sirloin would already have been placed at Caroll's in the town. The house couldn't have been prepared any better for a god coming home to his old place on earth.

" Johnny was the best shot this part of the country has ever seen. On a Sunday when all the guns gathered and they'd be blazing away, all Johnny had to do was to raise his gun for the bird to fall like a stone. He had two of the most beautiful gun dogs, Oscar and Bran, a pointer and a red setter. He had the whole world at his feet," Jamesie said. " He didn't have to lift a hand. All he had to do was go round and oversee what other men were doing. Yes, he could be severe enough and strict, too, in his own way . . . too exact when it wasn't needed. The whole country was leaving for England at the time and if any of them had a hope of Johnny's job there'd be a stampede worse than for a gold rush back from England. If anybody had told us what was going to happen we wouldn't have believed them. We'd have laughed.

" He went after Anna Mulvey. He and Anna were the stars in The Playboy that got to the All-Ireland Finals in Athlone the year before but neither of them was fit to hold a candle to Patrick Ryan. He had Donoghue the solicitor in town down to a T as—I forget rightly who it was . . . Patrick had the whole hall in stitches every time he moved. Johnny was wild about Anna. We were sure Anna left for England to get away from Johnny. The Mulveys were well off and she didn't have to go. Then when she wrote to Johnny that she missed him and wanted him to come to England I don't think his feet touched the ground for days. We wanted him to take sick leave and go and test the water and not burn all his bridges but he wouldn't hear. If he'd heeded our words he could be still here."

" Why would Anna write for him to come to England when she wasn't serious or interested?"

" She was using him. She could be sure of adoration from Johnny. She had only to say the word and she'd get anything she wanted."

" That was wrong," Kate said.

" Right or wrong, fair or foul, what does it matter? It's a rough business. Those that care least will win. They can watch all sides. She had no more value on Johnny than a dog or a cat.

" Poor Bran and Oscar. The gun dogs were beautiful. They were as much part of Johnny as the double barrel, and they adored him. The evening before he left he took them down to the bog with the gun. They were yelping and jumping around and following trails. They thought they were going hunting. I remember it too well. The evening was frosty, the leaves just beginning to come off the trees. There wasn't a breath of wind. You'd hear a spade striking a stone fields away, never mind a double-barrel. There was just the two shots, one after the other. We would have been glad to take care of the dogs but he never asked. I wasn't a great shot like Johnny but I would have kept the gun and the dogs. They were beautiful dogs. That evening a man came for the gun and another for the motorbike. He had sold them both. You'd think he'd have offered me the gun after all the years in the house. I'd have given him whatever he wanted."

Meet 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.

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By the Lake 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
I loved it. It was a very peacefull book and the characters were developed really well. Jamsie was my favorite after finishing the book I actually miss him, Mary and the Shah.