John McGahern's "That They May Face the Rising Sun" is the most perfect novel I've read in years. By perfect I mean composed, or built, like a handcrafted table, with everything mortised and sanded and finished to a T. Things happen in this book, which was published in America with the title "By the Lake," the way they happen in life. We meet people, but we may not learn their first or last names or what exactly they do until the story is half over. Most of the people live on the edges of a lake in the Irish countryside. One couple, the Ruttledges, are transplants from London, and watching them assimilate--and watching them learn the degree to which they will always remain outsiders--is the spark that drives this story.
Through the Ruttledges we meet the rest: Jamesie and Mary, a kindly older couple across the lake; John Quinn, a womanizer; Patrick Ryan, a handyman and a brooding soul, one of those disagreeable people who see to the heart of things and then use what they know like a hammer. Mostly McGahern lets them introduce themselves according to what they talk about: the weather, the livestock, the coming of telephone poles to the neighborhood. The story covers a year, and seasons and change are its building blocks. And while the people who live beside this lake are not terribly wise, they are at home in their world: "Happiness," Ruttledge decides, "could not be sought or worried into being, or even fully grasped; it should be allowed its own slow pace so that it passes unnoticed, if it ever comes at all." I saved the last 20 pages of the book for two weeks, unread: as long as I did not finish, I could stay in that world beside the lake.