Musical healing

GRACE NOTES by Bernard MacLaverty Cape pounds 14.99
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After five years of wilful absence, Catherine is home for her father's funeral in a small town near Belfast. She finds the buildings sheeted in polythene, bristling with scaffolding, bombed out by the IRA. She remembers from childhood the Orangemen and their drumming contests up on the high cross-roads, the drums so huge that it took two men to harness each drummer; she remembers the overwhelming noise. "They practise out here above the town to let the Catholics know they're in charge. This is their way of saying the Prods rule the roost," says her father. "You're looking at a crowd whose highest ambition, this year and every year, is to march down streets where they're not wanted. Nothing to do with the betterment of mankind or the raising of the human spirit." Catherine is not attending. She is distinguishing the left beat from the right, her body and soul vibrating, filled and thrilled by the sound.

This is not a book about the Irish question. Nor is it, as the blurb suggests, a book about coming to terms with the past. In clear, simple prose, sometimes modestly colloquial, sometimes sombre and elegiac, MacLaverty examines abstraction and paradox, the simplicity of the complex, the collective voice which may extinguish or confirm the importance of the individual, the possibility of transubstantiation through art. So many anxieties and speculations jostle with memory and reflection in Catherine's weary head. Now she is in her twenties and gaining recognition as composer. She has a baby daughter and a discarded lover. She lives in Glasgow, suffering from post-natal depression. Recently and against many odds she has seen her first symphony performed in triumph.

The first part of this beautifully structured book deals with Catherine's three days in Ireland; the second moves back a couple of years to cover the baby's birth, the developing depression and the writing of the symphony. The account of Catherine's state is awry and shocking: her heartbeat muffled between her ear and her pillow, her mind racing into the abyss. "Inside a boiled egg there was a skin. Thin as tracing paper. If you cracked and crazypaved the shell and peeled it off then beneath that was the skin. You could tear it. A membrane. Like the fontanel ... Think of something else. Leave yourself alone. You're worrying about worrying. I am thinking about what I do not want to think about."

Music, the mirror of her life, will be her salvation. Remembered images reform as incidents, metamorphose into musical phrases. The hundreds and thousands sprinkled on cakes for the funeral tea become the lights of Glasgow seen from the night sky. A group of monks moves singing out of a great empty workroom in Kiev; their voices fade to silence. Four Orangemen drum their way down the side aisles of a church in Scotland; and slowly the drum-beats die away. A school experiment with candle flames quenched by carbon dioxide serves as a metaphor of her depression: "She felt the darkness of the bright days descending on her, step by step." Everything is woven into the symphony, and like the symphony the book has the symmetry of a hinged scallop shell.

Catherine can no longer believe in the Catholic dogma of her girlhood; but if substance is more important than form, then music may take its place. "I can see music as the grace of God," says Melnichuck, her Russian mentor: "Through all the communist times they did not allow religion. For us music was a way of praying, music was a way of receiving God's grace." At last, listening to her symphony she finds herself filled with the knowledge of that grace.

Although this is an inward novel, the external world is vividly presented. MacLaverty bestows the same grave courtesy upon the hot-water bottle and tea-caddy as to the dark night of the soul or the nature of composition. There is something of Dante here, in his effortless movement from the plangent to the domestic or bizarre. A friend's husband is a quantity surveyor. "Catherine asked her what exactly a quantity surveyor did. 'He surveys quantities.'" MacLaverty's ear for dialogue is impeccable - and for the gaps between the words.

There are no facile conclusions. Although the ending is triumphant, we know from the beginning that Catherine's depression will continue, that music cannot alter the catalogue of man's inhumanity. But we do also believe in the power of creation to transmute suffering into celebration, "a joy that celebrates being human. A joy that celebrates its own reflection, its own ability to make joy. to reproduce." Catherine calls her symphony "Vernicle". A vernicle is a token worn by a pilgrim, testimony to his journeyings. "I have been there," it proclaims. "I have done this." In the same way, Catherine sees her work as a token of her living; she has made something exist; it was not there before. She remembers too "the childish awe of stepping on fresh snow, of marking it with her small foot".

I have to say it. This is a marvellous book.