Was any novelist – or journalist come to that – writing about breast cancer in the early 1960s? Did anyone – apart from the medical profession and a few bold souls – even talk about it? When I was growing up, the word ‘breast’ was usually only encountered in literature or hymns and was likely to summon a snigger; women and girls had ‘chests’. A mastectomy was considered almost a matter of shame. Astonishing, then, that John McGahern’s first novel, The Barracks, published in 1963, has Elizabeth Reegan’s breast cancer at its centre.
My own brush with the disease is comparatively recent so for me the subject is rather close to the bone. When I came across a second-hand copy of the novel on holiday in Ireland I might have put it back on the shelf, but the blurb only mentions an ‘illness’ and the title suggests a wider canvas. The cover of the 1980s Faber paperback shows two men in garda uniform lounging outside a police barracks, a regulation bicycle just in sight. Was this choice of image intended to attract a male readership? Not entirely, I think.
Elizabeth is married to a police sergeant and is bringing up his children in their quarters in the barracks. The pattern of their days, shared with the other gardai and their wives in a close-knit Irish village, is a counterpoint to her inner life. Her illness often puts her at one remove from people she knows intimately, their stories and their everyday dramas. Like the writer himself, she is a sympathetic but also a critical observer. And so The Barracks is a novel about how to live and what matters in a life; the way we all feel part of things and yet, so often, are alone and disconnected. Elizabeth’s illness is a kind of crucible for McGahern, intensifying and clarifying what matters to him.
Breast cancer used to be thought of – and often was – a sentence of death. A sense of awful inevitability hangs over the novel, and the stages of Elizabeth’s disease
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