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Grace Notes

By Bernard MacLaverty

The cover of Bernard MacLaverty’s new novel Grace Notes shows a reproduction of Wilhelm Hammershoi’s painting ‘Interior with a Girl at the Clavier’. There could scarcely be a more apt choice of illustration, both in terms of this specific book and of MacLaverty’s career to date. A girl is seated at a clavier with her back to the viewer, and to a table covered by a white cloth with crisp folds on which rest two empty plates and a butter dish, a scene inviting the symbolic interpretation that the demands of art require a renunciation of the pressures of domesticity. The uncluttered composition recalls the spare, austere style of Japanese prints, yet the whole painting breathes a freshness and vitality, and is flooded with clear, sharp Scandinavian light. Hammershoi was a Danish painter of quiet interiors in muted colours, chiefly grey, and his refined style had something mystical about it, suggesting the work of seventeenth century Dutch artists like Vermeer and de Hooch. His art has a timeless quality, but it also offers a nostalgic escape into the past. Although he had to wait a long time for recognition of his work, he was much respected by his contemporaries.

Similarly, while MacLaverty has scored notable successes in the past, especially as his two previous novels, Lamb and Cal, were made into worthwhile films, he has still remained a somewhat peripheral figure. Grace Notes is the novel to change all that.

The heroine of the book, Catherine Anne McKenna, is a young woman from a Northern Irish Catholic background, an only child who has studied music at Queen’s University in Belfast and later in Glasgow, and is a promising composer. The first part of the book takes place during Catherine’s first visit home in five years, for her father’s funeral, and is haunted by memories of her childhood, while the second part, which precedes the first part chronologically, tells of her abusive relationship with her alcoholic partner (was her involvement with him an echo of her father’s alcoholism?) on the isle of Islay, the birth of their daughter, and her battle against depression and struggle to write music.

But so brief a synopsis cannot do justice to this book because, like all the best books, most of its appeal lies in the language itself. There are wonderful passages, reminiscent of Joyce’s A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man, where Catherine is initiated into the tricks and vagaries of language, like when her father draws her attention to the homophonic property of a name like Lynn C. Doyle, which could also be ‘linseed oil’, and she reflects that if he were still alive she could offer Bartok and ‘bar talk’. Or when he points out how ‘...a thing can be its opposite...’ like when people say ‘"Ach - you’re hearing things". To mean you’re hearing nothing at all.’ Appropriately for a novel about a composer, sound images permeate the text, such as: ‘The sound of the tolling bell was strange. Scratchy almost. Thin. Then Catherine realised it was a tape recording, not a real bell at all. Even from this distance she was aware of tape hiss.’, or ‘When people whispered like that she could hear the wet inside their mouths.’, or ‘...that’s what music was, emotion beyond words.’ There is a great sense of the music in everyday things, for example: ‘She heard the door screech open again and looked up. One of the postmen had forgotten something. When he went out again the door screeched again. Again the diminishing flopping sound until the doors were still. At the end of the runway the note of the plane’s engines rose to a hornet sound as it raced to take off. Ingrid came back into the terminal, taking off her hat, her high heels clicking. Catherine and her baby were the only ones left.’

Another of MacLaverty’s impressive achievements here is that he is a man writing convincingly about the intimate life of a woman. (Well, it convinced me.) The description of the birth of Catherine’s daughter, Anna, is brilliant, as are those of her depression and her creative process. Indeed, depression and creativity could be seen as diametrically opposed forces in Catherine’s life, depression being what happens through a lack of creativity, creativity being the cure for her depression.

Ultimately, the book is about the idea of grace in a secular world, of music as the grace of God in a post-religious age. Grace notes are ‘the notes between the notes’. At the end of the novel, the performance of the piece of music that Catherine has been writing takes place in a disused church, the Henry Wood Hall in Glasgow, and two short sentences tell us: ‘Music. Her faith.’ While this Pateresque notion of a ‘religion of art’ is dubious as a universal ideal when held up to close scrutiny, it is a comforting idea which obviously proves enabling in the life of someone as talented as Catherine.

Grace Notes was short-listed for this year’s Booker Prize, but failed to win. Given the inexplicable exclusion of John Banville’s The Untouchable - the only reason I can think of for its being passed over is that its subject matter rankled too much with English establishment sensitivities - Bernard MacLaverty’s book would have been a worthy Irish winner. Regardless of whatever awards it may or may not get, it deserves your attention.

First published in The World of Hibernia


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