Readers familiar with Bernard MacLaverty’s novels know that he is a deft and sensitive chronicler of his native Ireland – particularly of “The Troubles”, but also of more personal troubles. Collected Stories draws from five published collections, arranged chronologically from Secrets (1977) to the most recent, Matters of Life and Death (2006).In what is arguably an over-extended introduction, MacLaverty reveals “bits of my life and how I first came to writing”, but as the man himself suggests readers might do well to proceed to what he does best: to discover for themselves.
Ireland, and not least the North, has always produced fine writing. Hypnotic storytelling may be in their DNA, almost to the point of cliché, and MacLaverty is further blessed with a poet’s ear, knowing “a road that fumed with dry snow and wind”; he is also wonderfully alive to dialogue and dialects, “She spoke with a strange accent, as if some of her words were squeezed into the wrong shape. Her mouth was elastic.” So far, so good – and so very Hibernian – but all of this was published after he had left Belfast. Secrets appeared two years into his new life on Islay. From there, he gives us towns “where green peppers wrinkle on the Co-op shelf”, soused men in soutanes, the odd Da, heavy with his belt, smoking ( plenty smoking), coming-of-age angst, and worn-out women pouring never-ending pots of tea. This is a known Ireland, written by many, with hints of Mrs Doyle. If that were all that he offered, MacLaverty would not be the justly lauded writer that he is. Islay is a bare hour by efficient RIB from Ulster, but otherwise it’s very distant. I began to seek Scots, alert to find traces of his adopted home as these stories progressed, but they were not often present. When they did appear, Scots were in Spain, in the Mid-West, in Ireland and, at a pinch, in Edinburgh, but never near Bowmore. That may be significant. Islay offers characters aplenty, but MacLaverty’s eye is searingly honest and not unkind. He appears to have needed to temper and work through his relationship with his boyhood island by applying a filter, set elsewhere. After all, The Troubles alone would take quite some distillation.
If Collected Stories’ sequencing showcases the trajectory of his maturation as a writer, it may also be possible to discern a sharpening focus and perspective on his Irish heritage, the longer he lives elsewhere; his tales also grow considerably in both scope and structure. Rather, as we all begin to appreciate our own family’s uniqueness and eccentricities when we flee the nest, MacLaverty now knows Ireland anew from Islay. Even in that first section, something beyond the traditional emerges. From Father and Son, with its interleaved voices and space for the reader, a brave writer develops. He offers the delightfully surreal humour of” The Miraculous Candidate”, and indeed I would have enjoyed more of that chuckled- aloud warmth and off-beat observation.
Hearteningly, MacLaverty trusts his reader increasingly; he takes more risks: consider the terse layering of” On the Roundabout”, with its fear and nuanced understanding of the necessary duplicity honed on both sides of the sectarian divide to…?. He inhabits characters with great verve, and demonstrates immense ability to see from differing viewpoints and carries that off brilliantly in “The Trojan Sofa”.
MacLaverty writes, “Fights are never about what causes the fight. They are always about something else – something in the past, an irritation, a vengeance, a reprisal.” An Ulsterman must be better qualified that most to know that, but something similar may be said of this writing. If Islay has given MacLaverty the prism through which to tell Ireland, it is a marvellous gift. Selfishly, I hope now that he is well-settled in Glasgow, MacLaverty will be able to return the compliment to the Queen of the Hebrides.