Bernard MacLaverty (1998) Grace Notes

Grace Notes was shortlisted for the 1997 Booker Prize. Reading this book, over twenty years later and it’s easy to see why. Quality rings true. The narrator is easy to describe. Bernard Mac Laverty does all the heavy lifting for us, when we look over his shoulder and read the programme for her performance of Vernicle, a first performance, just up the road from me, Wood Road, Partick.

'Catherine Anne McKenna was born in Co. Derry, and studied composition at Queen’s University, Belfast  and later at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow. Winner of the Moncrieff-Hewitt Travel Award she studied composition with Anatoli Melnichuck in Kiev. She has now left teaching to devote herself to full-time composition. She lives in Glasgow.'

When the reader first meets Catherine she’s going home for her da’s funeral. She’s had a falling away and a falling out. Falling away from her convent school faith and a falling out with her da, Brendan. He’s a publican, well-liked, respected. She’s the prodigal child, gifted beyond her years with an ability to compose music. Her secrets are light and dark.

While she was away o’er the water, from the killing and bigotry, she had a baby, Anna. Bernard had a grandchild he never met or knew about. Her mother never got to dandle on her knee.

The darkness comes from depression. ‘Scorpions in her head.’ She has to negotiate the familiar landscape of her youth with these secrets weighing her down. Going home is the first part of the book. Familiar smells and tastes made foreign. The past rising up to meet her. Transubstantiation.

Derry, is no longer, home. Nor can it be. For one thing, her mother is there. For another her father is not. She admits to being like him in some ways. The father of her child, Dave, like her father, is a drinker too.

‘In a strange way it was he, who’d helped her. The night, the first night he’d hit her – she saw as a turning point. It was the next day she’d slipped out of the house and walked the beech with Anna for most the day…Dave was cooking, getting something greasy into him before going out to the pub – a ‘good lining’ he called it.

…What happened to your mouth? he said.’

Catherine leaves him as she leaves her father and mother. Goes back to the mainland, with the child, a room in a basement at her pal, Liz’s house. The equivalent of a writer composing in an attic, with no hope and every hope competing with life and the feeling nothing will get done. Nothing will get finished. And anyway, it will be shite. The same kind of shite that gave us St Celia as the patron saint of music, based on a mistranslation and misunderstanding

Yet, to make time, to find space to create, is at the heart of Catherine’s existence. A possible route out of depression. But more than that. Full of grace, overflowing.

‘For two months now she has written every day at this table beneath the window, looking up at people’s feet as they passed by. Raiding her own bank was how she thought of it.

Bernard Mac Laverty raided his own bank. All writers do. When it comes to the weight and weighing, lead and brass, standard fare, as I know that heavy feeling too well. You’ll find here is where the gold is buried. Read on.