I’ve been trying to pace my reading of Bernard MacLaverty’s books since rediscovering his brilliance last year with Cal. His output comprises a handful each of novels and story collections: this is his latest, Matters of Life and Death, published in 2006. According to his excellent website where he interacts with readers in the guestbook, there’s nothing further in the pipeline yet. So let’s savour it.
Matters of Life and Death shows MacLaverty stretching himself within his social realist perspective. The stories range from four pages to almost sixty, but most settle at twenty or so pages, the sort of length that is easily consumable in one sitting without the reader feeling short-changed.
Assembling a collection of stories must be a little like putting the songs in order for an album tracklisting. MacLaverty opens with ‘On the Roundabout’, a punchy – this is the four-pager – overture of two recurring motifs in the book: violence and Ireland, those happy bedfellows. Then there’s ‘The Trojan Sofa’, where a furniture dealer delivers sofas to affluent customers with his small son concealed in the frame, to enable burglary when the purchaser has gone to work.
Before we did it for the first time my Da said to me, ‘It’s up to yourself. You can say yea or nay. I’d never force anybody to do something like this – never mind one of my own. But I must say it is for Ireland.’
The comic high concept doesn’t interfere with the pace of the drama or the underlying angle of real history. If the book was an album, this would be the catchy single.
As the title suggests, death and the awareness of death is everywhere in these stories (I’d call it a concept album, if that metaphor hadn’t already been stretched too far), from a woman who exacts the death penalty for a rape, to the gentler account of two boys whose parents have died, taken in by a childless couple. It is this story, ‘Learning to Dance’, which shows MacLaverty at his subtle best: beginning with apparently unexceptional characters, by the end a simple scene of a couple dancing becomes strikingly moving:
They moved as one person, their legs scissoring together to the music. They had variations – sometimes dancing side by side – sometimes swinging out away from each other and slingshotting back together again. She threw back her head and her red hair fell and swayed. The doctor’s back was straight, his chin elegantly proud. The boy felt as if he was watching his parents. If they didn’t dance like this – and he had never seen them dance at home because they had rugs on the floor and the room was too small – it is how they would have wanted to dance.
The collection is a quietly ostentatious display of different modes of writing. MacLaverty’s facility for comedy – rarely enough seen in his novels – makes welcome appearances, even in the grim and death-aware surroundings of a hospital waiting room (‘The Clinic’):
Inside the men’s lavatory was a poster about ‘impotence’. A man sitting on a park bench with his head in his hands. How did he discover his condition in a public park?
There is political drama in ‘A Trusted Neighbour’, and a remarkably successful historical narrative in ‘The Wedding Ring’. All in all Matters of Life and Death has that rare quality in a collection of stories: not only is it not a chore to finish it, but it’s a struggle not to carry on reading it through, like a novel, and there are few weak links. It closes with a coda set in a blizzard in Iowa, and the penultimate story ‘Visiting Takabuti’ (Belfast schoolchildren of recent decades will recognise the Egyptian mummy in the Ulster Museum, who makes a guest appearance) again makes a narrative of beautiful serenity from unpromising beginnings. The central character seems a by-numbers old maidish character, unmarried and full of regrets, William Trevor on an off-day, but the story in the end gives us one of the most elegant and affecting treatments of death in the whole collection. MacLaverty, MacLaverty, there’s no one like MacLaverty. Who else can bring the lightest touch to such impressive gravity?
And Nora imagines it happening at her own death. She sees it like cinema. The soul, in her own image, leans over and with tenderness kisses the empty body. Adieu. And each time the soul makes the journey to the doorway reluctance takes hold and it returns to kiss the body with its shrunken frame and its frail bones of honeycomb. Adieu. Three times in all. From one vital part of herself to another. Adieu.