Depression produces great books. Whether from a deep, stair-less hell or from Churchill’s ‘black dog’ that occasionally comes to visit, they emerge from the dark leaving a note, “Gone for Help”.
‘Prozac-lit’ rarely comes as uplifting as Bernard MacLaverty’s Grace Notes shortlisted for last year’s Booker. This is the Irish writer’s first full length novel since Cal and in it he brings to life the struggle of Catherine McKenna as she tries to keep afloat amidst post natal depression. She is a composer, a woman in a male dominated field, and throughout the book picks up her pencil and manuscript only to drop it again and again as she slowly emerges from a disastrous relationship with a feckless charmer and rebuilds a peace with her constricting family.
The book opens with her attending the funeral of her father in her home town in Northern Ireland then returning to Glasgow in panic filled dread to the baby daughter that is both a trigger for her depression and her eventual saviour. In the second part of the book MacLaverty takes us through the past, the fall and rise, leaving McKenna with, if not a way out, a way up.
MacLaverty’s text is made of bite sized, staccato sentences of short, quiet authority that build brick by brick, link by link tightening amidst gloriously naturalistic dialogue. Teas are poured, awkward jokes are half made, silences left hanging and McKenna’s life is reduced to short steps as the story unfolds in flashback. What MacLaverty has done with this precision of language is to avoid all sentimentality. He glories in plucking out the right word each time: a Scot’s words like “cranching” meaning the sound of teeth on hard fruit.
Catherine emerges from the dark of depression after the baby comes, living on isolated Islay contemplating harming the baby until she finds herself on the beach with baby Anna and like in the prozac ad. the sun comes out and what she hears in the silence again is music.
Musical metaphors fill this book: variations and development of themes. “On this accumulating wave the drumming has a fierce joy about it…. The bell-beat, the slabs of brass, the whooping of the horns… Passion and pattern.” Tone, texture and form recombine as she gets better, rebuilding the links to her past, her time studying in Glasgow and Kiev and in small town Northern Ireland.
As a whole MacLaverty’s narrative captures the survival of Catherine and comes as close as anyone has done to creating musical shapes on the page without ever sparing us the bleakness that waxs and wanes inside Catherine’s head.
Reviewed by Graham Dickson