Collected Stories by Bernard MacLaverty (Jonathan Cape €20.99)
REPRESSION is a subject Bernard MacLaverty explores with great subtlety. The story End of Season is one such example. Here we are introduced to a middle-aged woman, Mary, who travels to Spanish Point with her sister, Kathleen. While there, she encounters a single man of the same age, known simply as Mr Maguire. Mary is taken aback when the man asks for her hand in marriage. At first, the idea seems ridiculous. But the more she thinks about it, having a companion into her later years seems like a plausible concept.
As the story concludes, the reader is politely told how things worked out:
"After Mass, surrounded by the reality of the Sunday papers, Mary thought how silly the whole thing had been. The more she thought about the encounter the more distasteful it became."
The word silly here suggests that for Mary to have a boyfriend at such a late stage in her life would make her a laughing stock. Earlier on in the story, the narrator reveals how even the thought of a kiss for Mary would make "her face redden, like an adolescent blushing".
Like Mary, many of the characters we encounter in Collected Stories repress their primal urges and desires using the face-saving mechanism of religion, respectability and conservative values.
In this sense, MacLaverty crafts stories that are highly influenced by masters of the form, like John McGahern, William Trevor and James Joyce. What he gleans from such authors is a tremendous grasp of music in the prose.
While early stories from his debut collection such as The Exercise and Secrets certainly show a writer with promise, and a fine ear for rhythm, one gets the sense that MacLaverty is still finding his voice, and trying a little too hard to imitate his heroes.
By 1982, when the collection A Time To Dance was published, MacLaverty had become his own man entirely.
We see this progression in perhaps the greatest story of the collection, My Dear Palestrina: it describes a young boy, Danny, who takes piano lessons from Miss Schwartz, a Jewish lady originally from Poland.
MacLaverty amalgamates the rhythm of his words, in sync with the music he is describing, to produce something that is close to a masterpiece.
Slowly, the melancholy of the music builds as Miss Schwartz begins to lose control. Afterwards, MacLaverty captures the completeness of the experience by explaining how "both were silent, afraid to break the spell that had come with the music".
In Up the Coast, a story that took MacLaverty nearly a decade to complete, we see him dealing with the darker side of repressed male sexual desires. Here he makes the reader wait patiently for the moment when a vicious rape happens in the small Scottish coastal town of Inverannich.
The author juxtaposes the thoughts of an aspiring female artist, who is the victim, against her aggressive male attacker, an unemployed local man. The contrast between both characters is phenomenal.
While she is using the solitude of her surroundings to think about culture, history and literature, the young rapist has more primitive and sinister concerns.
Some stories, however, don't deliver with the same intensity and skill.
Both Walking the Dog and On the Roundabout document car hijackings by paramilitary groups in Belfast. While MacLaverty manages to capture the violence and mania of the Troubles in both these short tales, the reader begins to feel like they are reading gonzo long-form journalism, rather than a short story.
But any writer who publishes a collection that runs to over 600 pages in length can be forgiven for churning out a few mediocre tales.
With his attention to detail on matters that can seem incredibly trivial on the surface of things, MacLaverty manages to capture the hidden feelings of loneliness, failure, and heartache that lie underneath simple and very ordinary lives. He does this with a tenderness, delicacy, and panache that very few other Irish writers can match .