Grace Notes by Bernard MacLaverty

Vintage, 1998, 281 p. One of the 100 best Scottish Books.

 Grace Notes cover

MacLaverty is from Belfast but moved to Scotland in his thirties. Grace Notes is partly set on Islay, with some scenes in Glasgow. However, Part One occurs entirely in Northern Ireland to where Catherine Anne McKenna is returning to her childhood home for the funeral of her father. She has been estranged from her Catholic parents for years, effectively since leaving home to go to University. They were very strict when she was young, with an embedded sense of right and wrong, and she drifted away from them, her failure to come home one Christmas causing her father to say she would no longer be welcome. In the meantime she has, unknown to them, had a child, Anna, out of wedlock; a child whose father, Dave, “is no longer on the scene.” She still suffers from the effects of post-natal depression but has begun to ascend out of it. While back “home” she takes the opportunity to visit her first piano teacher, Miss Bingham, showing us the roots of her vocation as a composer. Before she leaves again, her mother seems to be coming round to her situation but is still aggrieved at the thought of a grandchild her husband never knew.

Part Two deals with Catherine’s early composing career while a teacher on Islay, her relationship with Dave, Anna’s birth, the descent into depression, Dave’s increasing distance as his alcohol consumption gets out of control, and Catherine beginning to come out of her despond on a beach as she hears in her head a set of notes which will become the new symphony whose first performance ends the book.

The portrait of Catherine’s feelings as she gives birth and the ensuing onset of her depression is finely done and Dave is a familiar enough character if a little undercooked. In the end though the novel is about music (grace notes being non-essential “notes between notes” but which add colour to a piece – the literary equivalent being detail in description of scene and action.) MacLaverty conveys music’s power and atmosphere very well and at one point deploys that tremendous Scottish phrase “black affronted”.

Throughout we get the sense of Catherine as a real person. So too are her parents and Miss Bingham but Dave seemed less of an individual and more of a type. It has to be acknowledged though that there are many versions of him about.

MacLaverty’s skill as an author means the book is very readable. One of Scotland’s 100 best? Better than quite a few which feature on the list.

Pedant’s corner:- Lilliburlero (Lillbulero,) the Ukraine (Ukraine,) “neither of whose name was” (neither of whose names was,) thran (Irish, the apparently identical in meaning Scottish word is spelled thrawn,) Miss Bingham had arthritis (as I read it this was at a time before Catherine went back to Ireland for the funeral and hadn’t yet been told Miss Bingham had the disease,) Capercaille (Capercaillie, more properly Capercailzie as it derives from the old Scottish letter yogh, written as ȝ,) jamjar (jam jar,) huzzies (usually hussies,) a pain in the ass (Catherine is Irish, she would say arse,) “what was bad were her nerves” (nerves is the object of this sentence; its subject is what, so, “what was bad was her nerves”,) the orchestra …. are playing (is playing.)

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