MacLaverty Bernard

Bernard MacLaverty: Matters of Life and Death

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

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.

Bernard MacLaverty: Cal

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.