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(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

The Barracks is the story, generally told by an omniscient narrator, of Elizabeth Reegan’s last fifteen months of life. Home again in the west of Ireland, on convalescent leave from the hospital where she was a nurse and from the war-torn city of the London of the late 1940’s, she has been married for four years to the sergeant in her local village police station. Sergeant Reegan is a taciturn widower with three children. The opening pages of the novel, which describe their ritual of lighting the oil lamp and drawing the blinds against the growing darkness, set the scene for Elizabeth’s desire to understand what life is, finally, all about. She is aware of the presence of cysts in her right breast, which are soon diagnosed as malignant, so the sense of impermanence in all things which preoccupies John McGahern in much of his fiction is, in her case, graphically heightened. She is symbolically alone on death row, though the actual barracks, physically speaking, has no need for such an amenity.

The opening kitchen scene is graphically sketched in its 1940’s detail: the sparingly used wet-battery radio, the overhead clothesline on its pulleys, the hot bricks in socks for bed warmers, the turf fire, the oil lamps, and the perpetual Sacred Heart flame. Elizabeth is nothing to the children: “She had hoped when she first came into the house that they would look up to her as a second mother, but they had not.” Reegan, when he comes in wet from his bicycle patrol, seems to treat her “as if he had married a housekeeper.” The subordinate police officers as they show up hear, in turn, how their sergeant faced down Superintendent John James Quirke, whom Reegan takes to be harassing him. There is some attempt made to distinguish Ned Casey and the other two men as individuals, but in general their collective dullness is well summed up when they announce finally that they must go home, and the remark is carefully attributed to “either Brennan or Mullins.” It matters little which of them said it. In general, they but add to the boredom of the daily round, at the hearth, and in the tiny village community where there is almost no crime. The February night concludes as nights always do there, with ritual worship: “heedless fingers” on the rosary beads and, ironically, “The Dedication of the Christian Family” beginning “the last prayers, the trimmings.” Reegan kneels facing the kitchen mirror. Who he is beneath his uniformed appearance is not an unimportant puzzle in the world of the novel; it is, however, most significantly Elizabeth’s story. McGahern depicts her and her increasingly hopeless isolation most sympathetically, surrounded as she is by the ironic pieties of family, community, religion, and Nature. This foreboding setting, with all the major players in place, is most economically and realistically fixed.

Like a hind at bay, “She’d have to stand her ground here at last.” Elizabeth has no escape. She muses: “It all came round if you could manage to survive long enough.” On her way back from her visit to the doctor who has arranged for a biopsy of her cysts, she circles in a first lengthy flashback to Dr. Michael Halliday, who was a formative influence on her character and thinking. Dr. Halliday was her lover in London and opened her eyes to her own unique potential as a human being. A cultured person, he introduced her to the world of books and the arts, and to love. The lessons succeeded for Elizabeth, but Halliday himself became increasingly nihilistic and self-destructive. “What the hell is all this living and dying about anyway?” is a frequent question of his toward the end of their relationship. It is one which recurs often in Elizabeth’s mind. He had offered to marry her, not loving her; too well schooled by him, she rejected his proposal. He died soon afterward in an automobile accident. Elizabeth, for her part, never forgot his existential question, which is now her question: She has...

(The entire section is 1,404 words.)