Saturday, September 07, 2013

The cottage (Bernard MacLaverty)

Cal heated a tin of beans and tasted himself slice after slice of bread at the fire. He fell asleep and when he awoke it was dark. He rubbed the window and looked out. Between the cottage and the lights of the farmhouse he could see the blizzard. It was after eight o'clock and the fire had died down. Shivering, he raked the embers to redness and put on some kindling wood, then blocks on top of that. He pulled his chair nearer to the fire and put his feet up against the tiles of the mantelpiece. After such a long sleep he knew he would spend the night tortured with guilt and insomnia. There was a knock at the door and he leapt to answer it, knowing who it was.

Bernard MacLaverty's Cal is now thirty years old, and it has probably been at least twenty-five years since the last time I read it. I picked it up again earlier this week, prompted by the death of Seamus Heaney, who like MacLaverty was a native of what depending on your point of view is either Northern Ireland or Ulster. Set during the height of the Troubles, the novel follows one not very willing participant, a teenaged boy with no particular prospects who is pretty much trapped from the outset, though his story will take some unexpected turns along the way. Dark as the background is, and as grim as the unfolding of the events, there's nevertheless a gentleness about the book, as MacLaverty is more interested in his characters than he is in indulging in yet another rehearsal of the cycles of violence and retribution that finally seem to have burned out, at least for now, in that much bled-over corner of the world.

Put another way, the book is not an example of noir. Which isn't to say that it holds out much hope, but it does at least have enough compassion for its characters to make us care about their fates, even if their prospects for happiness were never more than remote.

Bernard MacLaverty has written many short stories, some of which I've read and which are very good indeed, and several other novels, which I've never quite caught up with. This one still holds up quite well.

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