I’ve been a fan of Bernard MacLaverty’s powerfully tragic debut novel Lamb since studying it for GCSE, but until now had never got around to reading his second novel Cal (1983). That might be something to do with how, growing up in Belfast in the 1970s and 80s, I hated any fiction based on the Northern Irish ‘Troubles,’ which seemed too close to home in their depressing realism to be diverting. Now that such works have the value of historical documents of another age, they seem much more palatable.
At 150 pages, Cal is as skinny as its lead character, and as full of bright-eyed, grim life. He’s a lad of twenty or so, and part of the last Catholic family in a housing estate in an unnamed Northern Irish town. Cal’s mother died when he was a child and he and his father, who works in the local abattoir, are under threat to get out from Loyalists who are itching to coin the phrase ethnic cleansing a decade or so early. “Fear had driven the others out but his father would not move. He was stubborn at the best of times but if he thought pressure was being applied to him he was ten times worse.”
If all that makes you feel like shutting the book before you’ve even opened it, please don’t. What lifts Cal above its almost satirically grim subject matter is MacLaverty’s deliciously precise detailing and his dedication to his main character. The sense of setting evoked by just a few lines of description is exceptional right from the start:
He stood at the back gateway of the abattoir, his hands thrust into his pockets, his stomach rigid with the ache of want. Men in white coats and baseball caps whistled and shouted as they moved between the hanging carcases. He couldn’t see his father, yet he did not want to venture in. He knew the sweet warm nauseating smell of the place and he had had no breakfast. Nor had he smoked his first cigarette of the day. Smells were always much more intense then. At intervals the crack of the humane killer echoed around the glass roof. Queuing beasts bellowed in the distance as if they knew.
And where normally I tend to dismiss the view that readers should care about the characters in a book, MacLaverty expertly turns over your heart and leaves you desperate for Cal (and his father) to get a break. But the only breaks Cal looks like getting stop around the kneecaps: he’s trying to get out of the IRA without ever intending to get in; he’s torn up with guilt over something terrible he took part in; and he’s crushed with love for a woman who doesn’t know he played a role in ripping out the family happiness from her life.
In its handling of what makes a normal lad get tied up with terrorism, Cal is an interesting comparison with Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist: and comes out far on top, for its humanity and balanced wisdom. Here, there are no goodies and baddies: just thugs thinking they are following some chosen path, and ordinary folk trying not to get involved.
Cal also manages the difficult trick of moving along at a fair pace while also giving us time to digest everything that we see and feel along the way. The ending is as punchy and apt as was Lamb’s, and not the least pleasure of reading it is to rediscover in Bernard MacLaverty another Northern Irish writer who can stand toe to toe with the rest of them, and with the great Brian Moore in particular.