Irish airs in a minor key

Patricia Craig hears delicate harmonies in Ulster
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Grace Notes by Bernard MacLaverty, Cape, pounds 14.99

Along with its other troubles, contemporary Ireland has had to contend with a powerful upsurge of generational friction, as the scope expands for old-fashioned parents and modern offspring to get at one another's throats. A set-up along these lines has begun to loom quite large in Irish fiction, and it's often centred on a fraught homecoming. Someone - usually a daughter - is returning to her birthplace with more or less devastating news for parents who lack the resources to liberalise themselves.

John McGahern, Deirdre Madden and Anne Devlin are among authors who have explored this theme. Now it's the turn of Bernard MacLaverty, whose new novel - his first since Cal, 14 years ago - takes a young woman composer in a state of postnatal doldrums, accompanies her home to a town in mid- Ulster for her father's funeral, and branches out to orchestrate such issues as feminism, artistic creativity and the possibilities for reconciliation.

Catherine McKenna is the only child of a Catholic publican and occasional bumbling drunkard in a Co Derry town such as Maghera or Moneymore, or some other place where a metropolitan progressiveness has never taken hold. She is something of a musical prodigy. Her career moves steadily forward, via a music teacher at home, university in Belfast, a postgraduate year in Glasgow, a spell in Kiev, a teaching post on Islay, an important commission from the BBC.

Through it all, this outstanding composer shows a striking composure, though her personal circumstances - childbirth, estrangement from her family, disintegrating relations with the baby's drunken father - finally bring about the frayed nerves and lowness of spirit which colour the narrative. A despondent state, in fiction, is usually tied up with inner perceptions; things happen in the mind, while the impact of actual goings-on is muffled. The drama is all internal.

In Grace Notes, in fact, the story-line is virtually abolished. This is a very subtle novel which gains its richness from sources far removed from plentiful activity. The musical dimension, if you want to read it that way, may stand for those emotions too intense to be articulated; but is also facilitates a range of implications and wordplay. It makes a space in which a lot of disparate things are arranged in harmony: hormones and homophones, a pain and piano-playing, Islay and atrocities. And it turns the Orange Lambeg Drum, shorn of its militancy and triumphalism, into an emblem of integration.

Bernard MacLaverty shows his usual relish for the lowly everyday detail, the squeaking laundry-basket (pace Katherine Mansfield), or the noise - the "chink" - a spoon makes against the side of a mug. Sometimes the close scrutiny, the peering annotations, seem to lead nowhere. He takes 12 pages, at one point, to describe a walk along a Scottish beach in the course of which nothing happens beyond the necessary placing of one foot in front of the other.

However, there is generally enough substance in the things that strike him, or his heroine, to cut out tedium. He is, at best, a delicate observer of familiar life - and eloquent in a minor key. Grace Notes, too, though it's far from being constructed in a comic spirit, contains the odd joke or two: "Another time in the pub she overheard Malcolm Black and a student arguing about Britain and Ireland being at loggerheads. She nose-dived into the argument, rolling up her political sleeves, only to find that they were talking about Benjamin Britten and the disagreements he had had with his composition teacher, John Ireland, at the Royal College of Music." It's a tiny caveat about impetuosity and conditioned responses.