Profoundly Different and Profoundly the Same.

Book Review for “The Barracks” by John McGahern.

Summary: Elizabeth Reegan, after years of freedom and loneliness, marries into the enclosed Irish village of her upbringing. The children are not her own; her husband is straining to break free from the servile security of the police force; and her own life, threatened by illness, seems to be losing the last vestiges of its purpose. Moving between tragedy and savage comedy, desperation and joy, this was John McGahern’s first novel.”

Age: Adult; Genres: Literary, Fiction; Settings: Era/s: Vintage Contemporary; Location/s: Ireland – fictional village not far from Dublin; Other Categories: Novel, Debut.


In September, I’ll be attending a writing weekend in Wexford, Ireland with the amazing author of “Foster” and “Small Things Like These,” Claire Keegan. In preparation for this, Keegan gave us some homework, which included a reading bunch of short stories (which are next on my reading list) and this classic Irish novel. When I looked it up, I found that McGahern is considered one of Ireland’s most important writers, and that this was his debut novel. Wikipedia says he was known for his “he detailed dissection of Irish life,” and “the trials of developing a sense of self in mid-twentieth century Ireland.” Well, this certainly is a fine example of that.

The thing is, I’m finding it hard to write this review. You see, on the one hand, I could easily appreciate the story and the writing here. However, on the other hand, I think I missed a lot as well, because I’m guessing that some of the references here weren’t written a non-Irish audience. I’m not saying this to be disparaging, but just as a matter of fact. Writers usually write what they know, and McGahern wrote about the people and places where he lived. If you haven’t lived among such people, like me, you might not “get” everything in this book. That said, I’m certain that the same could be said about anyone reading about a country or culture or religion with which they may not be familiar. It takes time to learn to understand them properly – which is a good reason why we should read more diversely; the more we learn about those we don’t know, the more tolerant we can become of those things outside our spheres of personal experience.

Getting back to the first-hand bit, I really must say that if this was McGahern’s debut novel, I really must read more of his books. There’s a very stark beauty in McGahern’s writing style that was sometimes harsh, sometimes sweet, but always vivid. This was especially true of McGahern’s descriptions of the scenes. Obviously, from the title of the book, most of the action takes place in a police barracks, which apparently include housing for the officers and their families. I could easily picture the layout of these buildings, and practically every wall and floor. Furthermore, when McGahern described the indoor areas, there was a type of stiffness to his prose, while outdoor places had a wistful feel to them. Even in the descriptions of the change of seasons there were subtle changes in the tone of the prose. It was as if the way McGahern described these locations directly reflected how the characters felt about where they were and when. Very clever!

As for the characters, I think that McGahern did a very good job with Elizabeth, who really was the main character. That’s never a given when a man is writing a female character. However, I’m not sure that he was as accurate with her emotions as he was hoping to portray them, but I also have to remember that this was published in 1963, and set during the period just after WWII, so I could be wrong here. McGahern did make her very sympathetic, and I kept wondering if maybe there would be a happier outcome for her. I also felt for her husband, who had already lost one wife, and I felt that McGahern did well with portraying both his denial and his anger. (By the way, I didn’t realize that Ireland didn’t get socialized medicine until 2005, so I was wrong in being surprised at how difficult it was for Reegan to pay for his wife’s medical bills.)

Obviously, the question is, did I care enough about these people to get emotionally attached to them? In truth, I can’t say that I did, even though I did feel sorry for them and how it seemed their lives were such drudgery, coupled with misfortune, and exacerbated by both mistakes and failed efforts to improve or change their situation. It also made me think that nearly 60 years later, there are many people, across the globe, who still go through these same things. However, despite the generally depressing theme of this story, I did enjoy this book, and I can recommend it to lovers of solid, character driven, literary fiction. For all this, I’ll give it four out of five stars.


This book is still available (via the following affiliate links) from Amazon, Blackwell’s, Foyles, Waterstones, WHSmith, Wordery UK and Wordery US, Kobo US (eBooks and audiobooks),, iTunes (iBooks and audiobooks), new or used from Alibris, used from Better World Books (promoting libraries and world literary), as well as from as well as from and UK.Bookshop (to support independent bookshops, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic).

This novel qualifies for the following reading challenges: The Classics Club.



Start your own WordPress blog today!

8 thoughts on “Profoundly Different and Profoundly the Same.

  1. McGahern is my favourite writer. I read this in 2005 and I still think about it. It was my first McGahern and I went on to read all his novels (bar one) and his achingly beautiful memoir in quick succession. They are all reviewed on my blog. I still have one more novel to read. I have held back reading it because I no longer want to be in a position where there are no more McGahern books left for me!

    I became mildly obsessed with this writer and actually went to Co Leitrim where his books are set, located the barracks that features in this novel and visited his grave.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. LOL. Yes. He is buried with his mother, who died of breast cancer when he was a young boy. Elizabeth’s experience is based on his mother’s life. I think he was trying to understand what it was like for her to have that diagnosis as having such an illness was not talked about at that time. I highly recommend his memoir, titled Memoir, to get a real understanding of his motivations. I think the loss of his mother deeply affected him; his father, a policeman, was emotionally abusive. The patriarch in Amongst Women is based on his father.

        Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

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

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.