In this collection of twelve short stories mostly set in Northern Ireland, the author’s consistently clear, spare style provides vivid images of the daily experiences, actions and trains of thought of mainly ordinary people leading unremarkable lives. If there is a common thread, it is their stoical acceptance of fate in whatever form –age, bereavement, loneliness, or the turmoil of the Troubles. Otherwise decent and caring people hold unconscious prejudices of religion, Protestant versus Catholic, or racism, such as against black American soldiers in Belfast during the 1940s.
So far, so banal and bleak, only slightly relieved by a tendency to end on an upbeat note. What makes the writing so compelling is the anticipation – precisely when or even whether Bernard MacLaverty may choose to introduce some dramatic event or unexpected twist, some sharp insight or striking image. “A Love Picture” not only describes a type of film but also portrays Gracie’s memories of her son, whose fears of being torpedoed at sea have come to pass. The sight of his bicycle in the hall prompts the image of him as he once “walked beside her down the street – steering his bike from the back by simply holding the saddle”. What is the mysterious urgent “night work” which cleaner Lily has to carry out on behalf of a sculptor? This is just one of the stories taking a quirkily original course, as is also the case with “Blank Pages”, which contrives to reveal a great deal about human relations through Frank driven by writer’s block to lay out sheets of white paper on the carpet, and the behaviour of a well-observed cat.
Some stories may appeal more if they mirror one’s own life, as in “Glasshouses” where an elderly man lost in his own thoughts suffers the sudden panic of finding that the two grandchildren in his care have disappeared, or the employee whose business meeting finishes unexpectedly early uses the time gained to visit his mother’s care home, an indication of his sense of guilt.
Yet perhaps Bernard MacLaverty’s skill lies in enabling readers to connect with situations they have not experienced first-hand. Is it necessary to have seen patterns on the frozen windowpane as a child to be struck by the “cold sandpaper roughness” of frost “which had covered the inside of the glass with feathers”? Also, the image of the artist Egon Schiele, traumatised by grief yet relentless in his need to paint his wife who has just died from the Spanish flu, chimes with one’s own recent experience of the effects of the Covid pandemic.
For my part, perhaps the most effective story is “Sounds and Sweet Airs”, where a superficially mundane account of an elderly couple making a ferry crossing in rough weather between Ireland and Scotland impressed me through both its construction and mix of character development, insights, and poignancy laced with humour. “Blackthorns” is also recommended, but other readers will be drawn for different reasons to other stories in this varied collection.