Squinting at the Absolute

The Vision of John McGahern

A few months ago, I was fortunate to hear a BBC radio abridgement of All Will Be Well: A Memoir, read by the Irish novelist John McGahern, who died of cancer at the end of March. A light tenor voice, scarcely betraying his seventy-one years, offered a rural idyll of County Leitrim, place of the writer’s birth and retirement. The lyrical evocation clashed with a somber formative story of childhood loss and fear—fear of the trembling sort.

In All Will Be Well (Alfred A. Knopf, $25, 289 pp.), McGahern combines the unabashed longing of a child for his mother (also a victim of cancer) with ambivalent awe of his bullying policeman father. His book’s title registers a rural acceptance of the cyclical nature of things, mirrored in the rites of the church and lived according to an agricultural pattern. His mother’s mediation of religious belief works itself out in a schoolteacher’s routine, and partly defuses the impossible tensions between her and her husband. “A child can become infected with unhappiness,” McGahern writes, signaling the pain of that time.

In a career of more than fifty years, the writer reaped what was sown in that boyhood. “There are no things more cruel than truths about ourselves spoken to us by another that are perceived to be at least half true,” observes the narrator of McGahern’s short story “The Country Funeral,” recording an exchange...

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About the Author

Edward T. Wheeler, a frequent contributor, is the former dean of the faculty at the Williams School in New London, Connecticut.