Now in his early seventies, John McGahern was born and reared in rural Ireland. His family's circumstances were modest but not impoverished. His father, Frank, was a sergeant in the police, known as the Garda Force, and his mother, Sue, was a schoolteacher. The place in which their large family lived was primitive: "There was no running water then, other than in streams or rivers, no electricity, no TV, very few radios, and when newspapers were bought they were shared between houses. Each locality lived within its own small world." Escape was difficult, yet McGahern made it in the larger world. He became a teacher himself, then a writer of novels and stories to whom recognition came early. He lived in many places, but three decades ago, he returned with his new wife to settle down in a house surrounded by fields that "have hardly changed at all since I ran and played and worked in them as a boy."
The obstacles he had to overcome in order to live as he wanted were far more formidable than place and circumstance. When he was 9 years old, his mother died after a long siege against breast cancer. Not merely was little Sean (as he was called) bereft at the loss of this kind, loving woman to whom he was utterly devoted, but suddenly he and his siblings had no cushion between themselves and their tyrannical, overbearing father. Frank McGahern "could be charming, even gallant, when he wanted," but he was utterly humorless and had a "calculating coldness." He could be brutal as well, and his little children were his victims:
"Young as we were, we were soon forming our own defences and adapting to the harsher laws of the world. We were very close together in years, and drew closer. Natural rivalries were suppressed. They couldn't be afforded. All our energies were concentrated on surviving under our father. . . . When there was a bad beating and the storm had died, we'd gather round whoever was beaten to comfort and affirm its unfairness, and it lessened our misery and gave strength to our anger. This gathering into a single band formed gradually over a number of years."
The children were sustained by each other and by the memory of their mother, who had given them "her practicality and quiet cheerfulness, and the unusual gift of making people feel better about themselves." She may not have been a saint, though she was deeply religious, but she had saint-like qualities that gave her children strength when they were most in need of it. She "often came to me as if in a dream," McGahern writes, a nearly palpable presence that enabled him to survive his father's many cruelties and in time to fight back against them.
From the above the reader will be tempted to conclude that All Will Be Well , though obviously well-written, is yet another memoir of childhood abuse and triumph over it. Nothing could be further from the case. Though that is indeed what happens here, as told by McGahern it bears no resemblance to the self-administered therapy undertaken by so many younger writers who seem to know nothing about life except their own childhoods and their real or imagined (or fabricated) agonies. McGahern understands that life is complicated and that no human being should be reduced to a caricature that serves the memoirist's purposes. His effort here is not to pillory his father but to understand him, to find the human being behind the petty despot.
"Your father is an actor," people often said to McGahern, and finally he realized the truth of that: "He was a man who acted out his life in parts and who lived out his life, as far as it was possible, in roles, nearly all of which he had abused while remaining protected within the role. He had set out as a gifted, difficult only child, both over-protected and spoiled, while remaining exposed to his mother's violent corrections." In his case, violence begot violence. His son believes that Frank McGahern was happiest when, well before his marriage, he fought for the Irish Republican Army, "where his propensity for violence was tempered by cold calculation and a keen sense of self-preservation." By contrast, his work with the Garda gave him little outlet -- "What work did they do? Occasionally they summonsed people for not having lights on their bicycles at night, for after-hours drinking, for assault, or trespass, owning unlicensed dogs, possessing fields of thistle, ragwort or dock" -- so he turned his fury on his children.
Like many other Irishmen of his day, Frank McGahern probably "married for sex." Because of "the power of the Church and the Church's teaching," sex outside marriage was forbidden: "There was no other way to have it. The result was usually the arrival of a large number of children in rapid succession. There were families in which the children were cherished, but many more where they were resented as unwanted mouths that had to be fed." Frank McGahern's family was one of these. Though Sue cherished her children, her husband vilified them: "We were made to feel a burden and to feel ashamed." In sudden rages, he treated the children as punching bags and scarcely lowered the level of violence when he was beating a girl rather than a boy.
By the time he was a young man himself, John McGahern "knew him better . . . than I knew any living person, and yet I felt I had never understood him, so changeable was he, so violent, so self-absorbed, so many-faced. If it is impossible to know oneself, since we cannot see ourselves as we are seen, then it may be almost as difficult to understand those close to us, whether that closeness be of enmity or love or their fluctuating tides." His relationship with his father did indeed fluctuate; there was love as well as hatred, times when the two were happy together and enjoyed each other's company, times when for whatever reason the father courted the son's affections and won them.
When Frank McGahern died, "the intensity of the conflicting emotions -- grief, loss, relief -- took me unawares," though even then "I cannot say I have fully understood him, and leave him now with God, or whatever truth or illusion or longing for meaning or comfort that word may represent." By contrast, no such conflict colors his memory of his mother. When she came back home after treatment for cancer, "it was as if my lost world was restored and made whole and given back," and the joy that he felt then remained with him ever after, a healing and restorative presence.
His mother hoped that he would become a priest and say Mass for her, but his life took a different direction. In his early teens, he discovered reading, "a strange and complete happiness when all sense of time is lost," much of which he did floating on the nearby river in a small boat. Gradually "a fantastical idea" formed in his mind: "Why take on any single life -- a priest, a soldier, teacher, doctor, airman -- if a writer could create all these people far more vividly? In that one life of the mind, the writer could live many lives and all of life. . . . Instead of being a priest of God, I would be the god of a small, vivid world. I must have had some sense of how outrageous and laughable this would appear to the world, because I told no one, but it did serve its first purpose -- it set me free."
McGahern has taken full advantage of that freedom. He has published six novels and four collections of short stories, received numerous honors and much well-deserved praise. He is regarded as one of Ireland's finest contemporary writers, not least because he writes about his native land with such clarity and honesty. His difficult childhood informs much of his work -- in particular his best-known novel, The Dark (1965) -- but in that as in this memoir, he seeks not to exploit his past but to understand it and to make it pertinent and meaningful to others. All Will Be Well is evidence enough of how well he has succeeded. ·
Jonathan Yardley is The Washington Post's book critic. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.