The Dark by John McGahern

Our protagonist, only ever named Mr. Mahoney and usually not referred to by name at all, is a young man trying to make his way in the world.

His mother died when he was young leaving him alone with his sisters and father. His father is morose, beats his children and bemoans his hard labour on the land and their poverty.

The boy wants to be a priest, at least he wants to escape this world of his father’s making.

He wins a scholarship to a local school and then another scholarship to study at the university, all the time working through his complex feelings about the world and his place in it. As life throws different situations in his way, he learns not only about himself, but about the world outside of his father’s home. These experiences cast his home in a new light.

The Dark is recognisably Irish. There is something Joycean about it. In theme as much as in style: the son struggling against a boorish father; the meticulous play with style. For as well as precise language, a studied and emotive use of the passive voice, there is also a playful use of point of view.

The first, second and third person are all used to explore the boy’s state of mind and his distance from his own experience. It is as if owning a first person outlook would be too bold for him. There are only a couple of chapters in which he seems to have full agency and yet these are the day before and the day of his exams to win a scholarship to university.

The day before the exam he tries to rest, knowing that he has studied as hard as he could. The day feels timeless almost, out of his hands. The day of the exam is similar. He merely does what has been asked of him. Even this agency feels false. If there is a way to be free, to make your own world, The Dark struggles to find it. You can often be pages into a chapter before it is clear whether you are following the narrative in first, second or third. You know you are following the boy through his days, but in what way isn’t always clear. Things happen in ways the boy has no control over. This isn’t because he is passive – his fevered studying alongside his work on his father’s land is impressively active – but because he sees no choice but to behave in a certain way.

For example, chapter nine opens with a beautiful description of the land as the year passes from winter, through Easter and summer to Autumn when his father decides to send the eldest girl, Joan, out into the world. His father has to call on Father Gerald, a cousin he dislikes, to help her get a job and Father Gerald, who has also been trying to help the boy, comes to pick Joan up.

‘The conversation people make to avoid each other went shuttlecock for two agonized hours, before Mahoney made excuse to get out.

“We’ll leave the lad and yourself together, father. You might have things to talk about, school and that, together. We’ll look after Joan’s getting ready and leave you alone.”

The room apologetically emptied, they were alone.

“So the first bird is leaving the nest?” the priest said.

What was there to do but nod in vague depression, she was going, all departures touched in some way everyone’s departure, became disturbing echoes.’

Note how the room has more agency than the people and how the line ‘What was there to do but nod in vague depression’ feels like a direct expression of the boy’s thought, an expression bound by circumstance, social expectation, an expression that is both imaginative and philosophical as well as contained and enforced. The rhetorical question expresses his desperation: circumstance, things beyond his control, define his actions.

The Dark is all about struggling for freedom, from poverty, from family, from convention, from the confines of religion, and this struggle takes place in the style and content. It’s an impressive book that I would need to read again to properly grapple with. But it is not just impressive, it is beautiful and emotive, drawing the reader on in the hope there may be some way the boy can move into the light. You’d have to read it to see if you think he can.

Next week, I’ll be blogging about Blackmoor by Edward Hogan.

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