Review: Grace Notes by Bernard MacLaverty Print E-mail

gracenotes(San Diego Union-Tribune September 14, 1997)

Song of Ireland

What is it with Ireland and its writers?

Why do so many leave—Joyce, Beckett, Frank O'Connor, Frank McCourt—and then, in one guise or the other, write the story of their exile?

Must every tale mix unforgiving parents, oafish young men and an inhospitable Catholicism that dislocates the artist's bones and resets them, stronger at the broken places, in another country? Such questions shadow Bernard MacLaverty's fine Grace Notes. Composer-protagonist Catherine McKenna is like the author: AWOL from the armed camp of Northern Ireland.

Nearly 30 and living in Glasgow, Scotland, Catherine is still a refugee from her Ulster parents' disapproval (she dedicated herself to composition instead of family and church). She has few friends and idolizes all her music teachers.

So self-absorbed, Catherine is consumed with obliquity, which MacLaverty labels "the Northern Ireland art form." Earlier in the story, before Catherine leaves Ulster, she has an affair with Dave, who becomes her live-in boyfriend.

He fathers Anna, but his romance with alcohol makes him violent.

Worse, he forgets the slapping, then denies it.

So Catherine flees her native land for Scotland. But despite the social and political muck of the Irish, the novel emphasizes Catherine's ascending mastery of composition, deepened by the joy and sorrow of motherhood.

In spare and arresting prose, MacLaverty portrays her depression, her calamitous single parenthood and her awakening love of Anna alongside the aural world that for Catherine is irrepressible. The contemporary composer must excel at self-determination, study, teaching and performing, as well as find time alone to create.

Each day, during Anna's nap and Dave's absence, Catherine works for one or two quiet hours: "She wanted (to compose) a celebration for the birth of her ordinary but exquisite girl-child.

From nowhere a breathing rhythm came to her and a three-note sequence.

She heard it in her head.

A moment later it added two notes and became better, a five-note phrase." Until exhaustion disrupts the artist's order: "In the evenings she found she was tired.

She'd been up from Anna's first rattling of the balls on her cot—six o'clock, seven if she was lucky.

All she wanted to do at night was to switch on the television and watch some junk." MacLaverty's time line is compellingly rearranged.

In part one, Catherine returns to a cordoned-off Ulster for her father's funeral and, before rushing back to Anna, an ugly reunion with her mother, who is enraged to learn, after the fact, she's a grandmother.

As she has always done, Catherine balances guilt and self-protection. In part two, a year before her father's death, Catherine has the baby alone.

Once Dave's abuse begins, she leaves him for Glasgow and safety. There, in a final stirring concert featuring her newest work for Lambeg drums (an Irish folk instrument) and orchestra, MacLaverty forcefully reconnects Catherine's creations-in-exile to her cultural heritage. And yet the soil of art is tilled as much with culture and craft as it is with personal pain.

In Grace Notes this pain exists in the overbearing expectations each character has, and none admits to having: daughters and parents and lovers for whom simple caring is hopelessly undervalued and rarely expressed.