Thursday, 23 September 2010

The Barracks Review

The Barracks
- John McGahern

Publisher: UK – Faber Firsts

Elizabeth Regan, after years of freedom – and loneliness – marries into the enclosed Irish village of her upbringing. The children are not her own; her husband is straining against his job in the police force; and her own life, threatened by illness, seems to be losing the last vestiges of its purpose. Moving between tragedy and savage comedy, desperation and joy, The Barracks is a novel of haunting power.

This is a far cry from my usual type of book. It’s a modern classic. It’s a story about real life. Real life. That means boredom, routine, peoples every day thoughts and fears. And it feels real. This book doesn’t involve a kick-ass heroine, or an ordinary guy caught up in a vast conspiracy, or even a pretty 20-something, kooky-but-successful woman looking for love. So straight away it falls to the bottom of my TBR pile. However, I wanted to challenge myself and I’ve had this book on my shelves for a while. Plus it’s a mere 232 pages so I decided to squeeze it in between by usual reading fare.

However, this wasn’t a quick read. It’s not a light read at all. The main story follows the final year of Elizabeth Regan’s life and her struggle with cancer. This causes her to reflect on her life and the decisions she’s made – most especially on her relationships with those around her. I really felt for her, but growing up in a different age, I really wanted her to stand up for herself a bit more – be independent and not spend the whole time looking after everyone else. I know this is a generational thing but I couldn’t bring myself to connect with Elizabeth completely because of it - some how I feel more connected with the vampire hunting heroines I usually read about!

It is beautifully written – the descriptions of life in Ireland in the fifties really brings the whole period to life. Everything, from the routine, the sights, smells and season are invoked and I could picture Elizabeth’s world vividly. But I never really relaxed into the writing; I was aware the whole time that I was reading and not swept along into a different world.

Overall, it is a good book – I can see why it’s become a modern classic. It’s exactly the type of book your English teacher would read to the whole class and make you write essays about. However, I didn’t really get into it – it took me a long time to read such a short novel. While I can appreciate the writing and the exploration of one woman’s life, it’s not the type of book I will re-read.

Recommended for those a literary bent. Writing  - 8 out of 10. Personal enjoyment – 4 out of 10

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