Book Review: Grace Notes by Bernard MacLaverty


I first read Grace Notes in October of 1997, soon after it was short-listed for, but didn’t win, the Booker Prize. I bought it on an extended trip to England after my two years in Hawaii and before I settled back down in Minneapolis. I am a little surprised I bought this hardcover book given that I tend not to buy HCs (especially when the author isn’t known to me) and I was on an extremely limited budget at the time and can’t believe I spent £15 on a book. That could have paid for a lot of scones with clotted cream.

When I decided to put it in my TBR Double Dare pile I had no recollection of what the story was about. I remember kind of liking it at the time and knew it had a musical theme running through it. I think what tipped me into a re-read was that, because of its cover and its association with that trip to England, the book has survived many a serious book cull. (Bought it in London, took it back to Minneapolis, moved it to Ithaca, moved it to DC, and then moved it to three different places in DC.) It seems to me that a book that has survived all of that deserves to be remembered.

Before I sat down to write this review I looked at my “books read” log to see when I first read it and I noticed that I had given it a 6 out 10 (which means “Almost liked it” on my scale). This time I give it a solid 8 which equates to “Almost loved it”.  I am not sure what I thought fifteen years ago when I first read it, but this time I was interested in the personal story, loved the way MacLaverty threaded the musical bits throughout the novel, and found myself laughing out loud in a few places.

The Story
Catherine McKenna is an Irish woman living in Glasgow and estranged from her parents who still live back in Northern Ireland. The novel starts with the death of Catherine’s father and then winds its way back through her life and how she got to be the promising young composer that she has become and how she got her daughter Anna and kept that fact from her parents until after her father’s death. One of the things I found fascinating about the story is Anna’s relationship with her Catholic faith and her Catholic parents. I left the Catholic church round about 1987. Even my life-long Catholic parents, fed up with hypocrisy in the pulpit and the pews, left the church sometime in the 1990s.

The thing about my family’s Catholicism was that it wasn’t dogmatic and it tended not to be judgemental. We were extremely active in our local parish. My dad spent so much time at church we used to joke that he would be saying Mass soon. And I was in the church youth group for four years, was the youth representative on the Parish Council, and was in the choir for seven years before going off to college. But despite all of that we weren’t the kind of Catholics who felt that other denominations were going to hell or that unwed mothers should be cast out, or any of the other hallmarks of the closed minded, mean-spirited, spiteful, superstitious, and unfortunately far too large wing of the church that has no problem covering up child rape yet thinks that gay marriage is going to bring about the end of the world. Anyhoo, since I am so far removed from that world these days, Catherine’s dogmatic and unforgiving parents seem quite anachronistic to me even for 1997. But I am probably kidding myself and that that kind of old school Catholic is probably just as prevalent as ever given the long tenure of the uber-conservative John Paul II and his once a Nazi factotum now known as Uncle Fester Pope Benedict. And lest I have offended any Catholics out there, if you are reading this blog you are unlikely to be the kind I rail against, and the Popes, having firmly put themselves in the political fray on countless issues deserve to be critiqued like any other political figure.

By the end of the book Catherine finds herself in a positive place and one can see how things might work out for her–even though many things are left unresolved.

The Musical Bits
I have come across very few good novels that include themes about classical music. Norman Labrecht does it well and Robert Ford’s The Student Conductor is a delight. Some Willa Cather does it but it seems a little more tangential or further in the background in her work. MacLaverty writes about music in a way that never really feels forced or name droppy. One really feels like composer Catherine is who she is. Not that I would know, but she seems to think like a composer and music is woven into all the threads of her life. One of the most amazing achievements is that MacLaverty describes Catherine’s compositions so well that I could hear them in my head, and really wanted to hear them for real. If only they weren’t fictional.

The Funny Bits
This novel is no comedy but it has more than a few witty obervations that made me chuckle and in one or two cases really laugh out loud.

Liz: “I must be getting old.”
Catherine: “Why?”
Liz: “I saw an outfit today in the cancer shop window I liked.”

Out of context this may not seem quite so humorous, but against the backdrop of Catherine’s depressed, frustrated life it certainly made me chuckle.

I can’t imagine too many of you are going to come across this one in your reading. But if you like books with musical themes or are doing one of those crazy “must read all Booker shortlisted books” challenges this is definitely worth pursuing.


3 thoughts on “Book Review: Grace Notes by Bernard MacLaverty

  1. Denise Costello February 2, 2012 / 2:51 pm

    Looks like a must read for me. Especially all the Catholic issues.


  2. Thomas at My Porch February 4, 2012 / 9:48 am

    Denise: It might be a little hard to find. Although he also wrote “Cal” which I think might have been somewhat popular.


  3. Paperback Reader February 5, 2012 / 9:12 am

    Have you read Cal or Lamb? Both are very, very good. This was prescribed reading on my Scottish literature course at uni.


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