Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 14, 2010

The Barracks (1963), by John McGahern

This is only going to be a short post about this book: I read it at a single sitting on the train from Bilbao to Salamanca (a five and a half hour trip) and I’m a bit tired after the journey.

My friend Kim from Reading Matters gave it to me when we met up in London, and I will always be grateful to her for introducing me to this wonderful author.  I wasn’t a subscriber to her blog when she reviewed this book back in 2006 but now I am going to track down every title I can find.

It is bleak: it’s the story of a woman who – having escaped the restrictions of life in Ireland to work as a nurse in London during the Blitz – returns to a claustrophobic Irish village to marry a widower she isn’t really in love with. The hopes she has for a child of her own and a role as loved stepmother don’t come to fruition, and the marriage has become sterile when her health becomes an issue.

It is introspective.  There’s no big plot or decisive event but it is compelling reading. There are few male authors who could have so convincingly depict the interior life of a forty-something woman, and parts of this story are really harrowing.  The scenes of police life in the barracks are vivid, and the banality of what passes for conversation is by turns comic and tragic.

For a first novel, it is brilliant.

Author: John McGahern
Title:  The Barracks
Publisher, date & ISBN: No idea, I left the book on the train when  I finished it.
Source: Gift.  (Thank you, Kim!)


  1. As someone whose writing consists largely of conversations, I noted what you say here about the sad banality of the ones in this book; something about the melancholy silence implied by this review makes me think of Joyce.


    • It takes great skill to depict the banality of everyday conversation. If you read my review of a recent Australian book, The Vintage and the Gleaning, by Jeremy Chambers, you can see my concern that in reproducing the banality of the labourers’ daily chat, the dialogue can become exasperating, just as it might in everyday life. In The Barracks, McGahern deals with the same issue with great skill: his central character Elizabeth is driven to despair by the routine conversations of her everyday life but the reader doesn’t become fed up with it although the same people in Elizabeth’s life tell the same stories and the same jokes every day. It’s a product of the ordinariness of their lives; the irony is that her illness finally gives them all something else to talk about. In London her lover over-intellectualised everything but he was interesting and intelligent; she survives by remembering the conversations they had together.

      The dialogue of everyday life is, for an author, risky. Authenticity IMO usually has to take second place behind making conversation interesting for the reader, because most everyday conversations, let’s face it, are banal.


  2. So glad you enjoyed this. It’s always a big risk sharing a favourite book with someone in case they absolutely hate it.

    Interestingly, when I read McGahern’s memoir, entitled “Memoir”, it became clear that the book is about his mother, who died of breast cancer when he was a youngster. It goes some way to explain how he was able to depict Elizabeth’s voice so authentically.


    • Yes, some of it is quite harrowing, I had to put it aside at times because I have a friend who died of this disease (Kim Dwyer, who helped me found ANZ LitLovers, a lovely lady that I will never forget) and I also have two colleagues at work with the disease too.
      I know treatment has come a long way since McGarhen wrote his book, but it reminded me of The Unfortunates by BS Johnson, who wrote so movingly about his friend’s death from cancer.
      I can’t wait to get home and order some more of this writer *grin*, I love melancholy Irish writing!


  3. […] Barracks which she gave to me when we met up for the first time in London in 2010.  I wrote a sketchy review of it as we were en route from Bilbao to Salamanca, but the book is still firmly in my memory and […]


Please share your thoughts and join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: