Bernard MacLaverty's new novel is his lightest and least political work. Here the Troubles, so often the engine of his fiction, are but a distant hum. Set in the late Sixties, it is a bittersweet look at adolescence, where sexual awakening is tempered, as often in modern Irish novels, by a growing awareness of death.
Martin Brennan, too dreamy for academic success, returns from a retreat realising that he is not cut out for the priesthood. As he resits his A levels, he fantasises about the women he is unable to seduce. Longing for freedom, he is thwarted by the discipline of school life and by his widowed, devoutly religious mother. A catalyst arrives in the form of Blaise Foley, who is anarchic, tough and sexually ambiguous. Together, they attempt to seize the A-level papers before exam day. Martin's sense of belonging is further unsettled when Blaise is beaten almost to death, on the instigation of the sadistic headmaster, who suspects her of distributing pornographic photographs.
Sexual awakening, however, must wait for the second part of the novel, which describes the events of a single night. With the Troubles in full swing, Martin, a few years older, is now a lab assistant in the anatomy department of Queen's University. Between carving up rats, he occupies his time by flicking through Gray's Anatomy and studying diagrams of female sexual organs. Then, one evening, he meets Cindy, a sassy Australian tourist who, having no place to stay, agrees to accompany him to the lab where, in the dissecting room adjacent, rows of corpses lie.
In such an unlikely setting, and to the distant crackle of gunfire, he manages, in spite of some awkward attempts at suavity, to lose his virginity. His awkwardness is heavily underscored by MacLaverty's mordant, clinical language ("He knew it involved his penis and her vagina"), by some questionable observations on kissing ("He felt a rush of her saliva into his mouth") and by ribald touches - he believes that Cindy's orgasm is an epileptic fit. But while all this conforms to MacLaverty's distinctively dour brand of naturalism, it is uncharacteristically indelicate, if not overblown, and all but snuffs out the pathos with which Martin finally resolves on a career in photography, and the pursuit of real love.
An often slow, tortuous book, narrated in a third person confined to Martin's limited point of view, The Anatomy School lacks the intrigue of MacLaverty's earlier and much briefer novels, such as the exciting Cal, which was memorably filmed by Neil Jordan. Nor is it helped by the characters, who, with the exception of Blaise, are coldly drawn and often static - in particular the obligatory priests, who are all prurient spiritual vacuums.
There are comic moments, but on the whole The Anatomy School relies on stereotype - it seems lost and often careless. With the northern question and the Church no longer exerting such pressure on the Irish psyche, it seems that the eternal Irish themes - thwarted sexuality, religion, terrorism - have little more to yield. One hopes that there's a fresher reality out there, waiting to be discovered.
Gerry Feehily is a critic living in Paris