on 30 July 2007
There are 2 great stories here: 'Up the Coast' and 'A Trusted Neighbour', which as well as being beautifully written are also complex and thought provoking. The characters are flawed, alive, rendered exquisitely and the reader is drawn into a deep engagement with them. At least I was. Maybe the other stories do not quite hit these heights but two or three of them are expertly done and nearly as good - On the Roundabout, A Trojan Sofa, Learning to Dance - the others are maybe weaker in terms of plot but not in terms of the writing which remains perfect throughout. I'd have given it 4 and a half stars if that was allowed.
on 3 September 2007
Bernard MacLaverty now has four novels to his name and five collections of short stories - and MATTERS OF LIFE AND DEATH (2006) is his best collection of short stories to date. Not that there was ever anything amiss with what went before. But there does seem to be a thematic quality to MATTERS OF LIFE AND DEATH - as, for instance, there is to that other great, though quite unrelated, volume of short stories, William McIlvanney's WALKING WOUNDED, published at the nadir of Thatcherite social nihilism, and which I well recall Middleton's late, great Jim Allen (HIDDEN AGENDA, RAINING STONES) extolling as `A jazzer!' (as he returned to me in the Waggon and Horses, Rhodes Village, one night, my, by now, heavily nicotine-stained copy of McIlvanney's short story collection) - alongside this most singular of compliments which I have never yet had proper occasion to reiterate. So I hereby re-apply it on my own account to the aforementioned thematic quality of MATTERS OF LIFE AND DEATH, which necessarily ensures (as does that of the McIlvanney title), that the whole is always going to be weightier and more meaningful than the sum of its parts.
There is a hint, too, about this book of James Joyce at his best. (Certainly, something of his short story, `THE DEAD', is resurrected for me in `LEARNING TO DANCE', when the parents of bereaved children are remembered in that they would take to the floor, dancing.) And I was reminded, too, I think, of James Plunkett's STRUMPET CITY, also Dublin-based, when an elderly woman recalls love shared though long past, immediately prior to expiring.
However, a further element would appear to be at work here. Because - well, given Bernard MacLaverty's age (for what it's worth, the same as my own when I was immersed in this book on my 40th wedding anniversary recently - Why? What else is there to do?) - Oh, yes, there would certainly appear to be a further element at work here, and it cannot fail to do otherwise than make the reader suspect, rightly or wrongly, that the hospital outpatient featured elsewhere in receipt of an unexpected medical reprieve may well be the author himself. "Hence," as John O'Hara (BUTTERFIELD 8, TEN NORTH FREDERICK) explains himself in the Author's Note to his 1967 short story collection, WAITING FOR WINTER, "the title." Come 1970, O'Hara would be dead, though, in view of that speculative medical reprieve, I do, of course, envisage nothing short of longevity for Bernard McClaverty. Indeed, I keenly anticipate his continuing to write short stories for many years to come. Correction: half-hours to come. (See [...] - his very individual website where, amongst other unusual glimpses he permits us into his writer's life, he further confides: "I now devote all of my life to being a part-time writer.")
None of which is to say anything at all about a couple of unexpectedly tough action stories you'll find here, each of them dealing with incidents, inhumane and abhorrent, that occur against the backdrop of the most recent period of northern Irish lawlessness. And the film rights to one of them (`A TRUSTED NEIGHBOUR') will have been snapped up immediately the book came hot off the press if justice anywhere prevails.
Ah, but does it?
I doubt it. Even when it comes to MATTERS OF LIFE AND DEATH (2006). And certainly not while so many British film and television producers remain committed to reworking old themes that are safely out of copyright.
Thrillers? Looks like it'll have to be THE THIRTY-NINE STEPS (1915) once again, luvvie. Well, okay, if it's Ireland you want, perhaps Erskine Childers' THE RIDDLE OF THE SANDS (1903).
on 22 January 2007
This is the first MacLaverty book I've read. On the back cover seven newspaper reviews are quoted (about prevous stories)two refer to the author's gift of writing without appearing to write - "his prose is invisible, free of tricks" - "you are hardly aware of reading him at all". Mmmm, they might well be right and I simply don't know what I'm talking about but this set of short stories struck me as being fairly plain and not terribly entertaining or insightful.
As with many short stories, each deals with an episode in the life of an individual and MacLaverty conveys nicely a sense of place and time. The ending of each is not difficult to guess although in most cases you do feel sympathy for the main character.
The impression I was left with was "I could do that" and, in most cases, I'd say that with some excitement and ambition (I'm a part-time co-writer of thrillers with no literary merit and would never get the reviews MacLaverty does) but the telling question for me after concluding I could do it, was, "would I really want to?".
A common remark when watching a real pro at work is "He makes it look easy". And MacLaverty undoubtedly does, whether that's because it is a hard job well done (and I'm a philistine) or it's a set of new clothes for the Emperor, I'll leave to others.