three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
23-July-Aug-2006
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A Memoir

A-AllWillBeWellCounty Leitrum in western Ireland is a forbidding rural landscape of heavy skies and peat bogs. Yet the landscape is the least of young John McGahern’s trials. Following the death of his mother, a devout schoolteacher who taught her son the names of flowers and encouraged him to join the priesthood, McGahern and his six siblings are delivered into the care of his father. Frank McGahern, a sergeant in the Irish Republic police force, rules over his brood with cruel severity. Evoking the land which came to remind him of his mother’s succor and the harsh emotional prison of his childhood home, All Will Be Well is a rumination on one writer’s beginnings.
Knopf. 289 pages. $25. ISBN: 1400044960

San Francisco Chronicle 4.5 of 5 Stars
"All Will Be Well, McGahern’s first memoir, is one of the finest evocations of a writer’s childhood parental relationships since Edmund Gosse’s great Father and Son a hundred years ago. … [It is] characteristically modest and unassuming in tone, and as beautifully and deliberately composed as a mosaic." Bob Blaisdell

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"[W]hat makes this memoir so moving is its insistence—shared with many of McGahern’s stories and novels—on the power of the single day that passes before us. … It has an ontological glow, as if life were best understood in the episodic rhythms of daylight and darkness." Verlyn Klinkenborg

Providence Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"The prose is not only seamless in its rich particularity, it is ruthlessly bound to the curve of conscious experience. Yet that experience has at its center a mystery, and the words flow toward the reader as if from a radiant source beyond the page." Tom D’Evelyn

USA Today 4 of 5 Stars
"After all these years, it’s good to read the facts of his life, one that he has mined so richly in his fiction." Bob Minzesheimer

Hartford Courant 3 of 5 Stars
"In a sad sort of way, All Will Be Well becomes a much better book once McGahern’s mother finally dies, for it releases in the prose all of the anguish and grief and anger with which he seems loath to tarnish his memories." John Freeman

Los Angeles Times 2 of 5 Stars
"Only time will tell whether McGahern has ruined his reputation and the desire of readers ever to seek out the novels that gave him his place in the world. Those books are so boldly imagined that it comes as a shock to realize, with All Will Be Well, that what we credited solely to McGahern’s art draws much from his own life." Thomas McGonigle

Critical Summary

An interesting critical discourse arises from Irish writer John McGahern’s new memoir. Reviewers who don’t count it among his best write as if they’ve been cheated. By allowing readers a peek behind his fictional scrim, they feel McGahern, who died this past March, at age 71, handicapped their enjoyment of his well-regarded novels by revealing his emotional mother lode of sources. The majority of critics disagreed with that assessment, casting All Will Be Well as a fascinating glimpse into "the fragments of the life that lies scattered across his remarkable novels and stories" (New York Times Book Review). His memoir is no jocular yarn in the tradition of Angela’s Ashes; McGahern has no chapter breaks and his style is often dense with description. But critical appraisal tips in favor of McGahern for his thoughtful rendering of a difficult childhood.

In memoriam

Amongst Women (1990): Award Star Irish Times/Aer Lingus Literary Award; Booker Prize nominee. In this novel, the inspiration for the 1998 BBC miniseries, a farmer and IRA veteran of the Irish War of Independence takes out his anger on his family.

The Barracks (1963): Award Star AE Memorial Award; McCauley Fellowship. An Irish woman who marries a bitter widower with three children starts to accept her life when she becomes fatally ill.