Studies in solitude
Matters of Life and Death
Bernard MacLaverty Jonathan Cape, 232pp, £14.99
In recent years, the short story has been the victim of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Low sales have caused almost all literary agents to apply a "no short stories" policy towards new writers, and to handle them only for clients who are established novelists. The result is that short-story collections are now too often dumping grounds for all the ideas that never looked substantial enough to result in full-length works. It's a shame, because when executed well, a short story can seem like the perfect art form.
Fortunately there are still writers such as Bernard MacLaverty around to execute them very well indeed. Matters of Life and Death, his fourth collection, contains 11 stories, all but one of which are set in Scotland or Ireland. The book's theme is solitude. Some characters are literally alone: in "Winter Storm", for example, an expatriate Scot is caught in a blizzard in Iowa. In other stories, however, the solitude is figurative, as with Mrs Quinn in "The Assessment", who is gradually fading into senility.
Along with the theme of solitude, there is an air of impending menace: this is usually associated with death or illness, but sometimes with other people. In "Up the Coast", a successful artist looks over old work that has been collated for an exhibition, and recalls a past event. The narrative shifts back in time to Inverannich, an isolated spot on the Scottish coast where the artist, then in her twenties, is camping alone among the rugged crags. This idyllic account is interwoven with another concerning a young man hiking to Inverannich from a nearby village. The man is evidently a loner, but it is only when we read of a conversation in the pub the night before, during which he heard of the woman's arrival from a fisherman, that we realise he intends to rape her. That he prepares cheese-and-ketchup sandwiches at home beforehand, then treats the journey like an invigorating hike, adds a gruesome layer to a brilliant tale.
"Learning to Dance" is a study in subtlety. At first we learn only that two brothers are staying at the lavish house of Dr and Mrs D'Arcy. From here we work out that it is the 1970s, that the boys have recently lost their father, who was a respected man, and that the D'Arcys are friends of the family. There are also hints that, for all the D'Arcys' apparent happiness, something is wrong. Mrs D'Arcy may have a drink problem, and may even be bored of her husband. MacLaverty gently suggests all this, without allowing his writing to descend into faux-meaningful vagueness: the balance between what we are told and what we must infer is just right.
In another story, "Visiting Takabuti", an elderly woman takes her two bored nephews to a museum. The tone is almost pedestrian, detailing the woman's seemingly contented life as a retired teacher and spinster, until without warning the story zeroes in, laser-like, upon her inner sorrow: "She leaned her forearms on the glass and felt a great weariness come over her. The life she had lived now seemed barren and worthless." There is an even bigger surprise at the end, which bears comparison with the final sentence of Salinger's "A Perfect Day for Bananafish", when Seymour Glass, following a pleasant day on the beach, casually "fired a bullet through his right temple".
The collection even contains its own summary, hidden away in a comment made by one of its characters in praise of Chekhov. In "The Clinic", a man is in hospital having a diabetes test. While waiting, he reads "The Beauties", and reflects with admiration on its author: "But Chekhov is Chekhov. He draws you in. He writes as if the thing is happening in front of your eyes." In a book bursting with reasons for praise, MacLaverty's ability to do what Chekhov does is the most praiseworthy of all.