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Grace Notes by Bernard MacLaverty
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's review
May 18, 2012

really liked it
bookshelves: fiction-mainstream
Read in May, 2012

GRACE NOTES. (1997). Bernard MacLaverty. ****.
I just discovered this writer. That’s like discovering America in 1493: probably the rest of the world already knew about him. This novel, short-listed for the Booker Prize in 1997, started out to be the best I’d read in a long time, but somehow got lost along the way. It’s the story of Catherine Anne McKenna, a young woman from Northern Ireland who leaves to pursue her dream of becoming a composer – a field famous for its scarcity of women. We first meet her when she returns to her home town for the funeral of her father. Her family is strictly old-fashioned in their beliefs of how things should be. Catherine obviously doesn’t fit in with how things ought to be – according to her mother and the old neighbors. the only one in the neighborhood who seems to understand her is her old music teacher, Miss Bingham. Miss Bingham has the ability to listen to Catherine’s music and understand what she is trying to do. We get an early warning, though, that there is something amiss with Catherine in the author’s description of her as she was taking a nap in her parents’ house before the funeral: “She woke, not howling, but with a noise in her throat trying to be howling. As if she was trying to shout Anna’s name...” (We don’t know who Anna is at this point.) “but no sound was being formed. Her legs and between her breasts were slippery with sweat from the dreams. Oh, Jesus. Waking doesn’t become any easier – sometimes the neightmare is preferable. First thoughts, worst thoughts...” What is the dream about? Why is this submerged terror in Catherine? We eventually find out what her problems are, but not until part two of the novel. That’s where the author seems to lose sight of what his initial intent was. The word “grace” in the title has a double meaning: it is the grace, as in “grace note,” referring to Catherine’s love and devotion to music; and the grace that is found in religion. Catherine has become an un-believer over the years – rapidly losing her faith – and grace – in the Catholicism instilled in her by her parents. She seeks alternatives to replace this path to grace, and, initially, finds it in her music. She also finds it another way that involves this mysterious “Anna” prevously mentioned. Although the author seems to have strayed off the path of his story, it is still a beautifully written novel, and I plan to find his other books and read further. If you have the time, you can Google the author and come up with an interview on YouTube that is interesting. Recommended.
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