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Grace Notes by Bernard MacLaverty

Grace Notes (1997)

by Bernard MacLaverty

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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3771040,613 (3.74)22

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MacLaverty is from Belfast but moved to Scotland in his thirties. Grace Notes is partly set on Islay, with some scenes in Glasgow. However, Part One occurs entirely in Northern Ireland to where Catherine Anne McKenna is returning to her childhood home for the funeral of her father. She has been estranged from her Catholic parents for years, effectively since leaving home to go to University. They were very strict when she was young, with an embedded sense of right and wrong, and she drifted away from them, her failure to come home one Christmas causing her father to say she would no longer be welcome. In the meantime she has, unknown to them, had a child, Anna, out of wedlock; a child whose father, Dave, “is no longer on the scene.” She still suffers from the effects of post-natal depression but has begun to ascend out of it. While back “home” she takes the opportunity to visit her first piano teacher, Miss Bingham, showing us the roots of her vocation as a composer. Before she leaves again, her mother seems to be coming round to her situation but is still aggrieved at the thought of a grandchild her husband never knew.

Part Two deals with Catherine’s early composing career while a teacher on Islay, her relationship with Dave, Anna’s birth, the descent into depression, Dave’s increasing distance as his alcohol consumption gets out of control, and Catherine beginning to come out of her despond on a beach as she hears in her head a set of notes which will become the new symphony whose first performance ends the book.

The portrait of Catherine’s feelings as she gives birth and the ensuing onset of her depression is finely done and Dave is a familiar enough character if a little undercooked. In the end though the novel is about music (grace notes being non-essential “notes between notes” but which add colour to a piece - the literary equivalent being detail in description of scene and action.) MacLaverty conveys music’s power and atmosphere very well and at one point deploys that tremendous Scottish phrase “black affronted”.

Throughout we get the sense of Catherine as a real person. So too are her parents and Miss Bingham but Dave seemed less of an individual and more of a type. It has to be acknowledged though that there are many versions of him about.

MacLaverty’s skill as an author means the book is very readable. One of Scotland’s 100 best? Better than quite a few which feature on the list. ( )
  jackdeighton | Aug 18, 2017 |
Disturbing book about a girl's difficult relationship to her parents and herself. She questions her talent, her thinking and her heritage, her love of everything her parents and the place she comes from. She wants to be free of those influences and at the same time cannot escape them because of the love that binds her to them.

Quote: A girl who doesn't tell her parents of her success is more estranged than one who conceals her mistakes. ( )
  flydodofly | Nov 10, 2016 |
I found this to be an excellent book. That opinion, however, comes from the perspective of someone who is not: a woman; a mother; a musician. So when MacLaverty writes from the voice of a mother, and I find it completely believable, I'm prepared to concede that others may know better than me. Nonetheless, the issues raised, the depth in which they are considered and the emotions of the participants seemed very convincing to me. These are very much three-dimensional characters, in so far as we are shown all sides of them. The protagonist's partner and father of her child, is believable, but I am at a loss to explain or understand his alcohol dependence. I guess he's depressed, but is not able to adequately understand himself to be able to come to that conclusion. The protagonist's father is also presented as a rather shallow person with fixed ideas and poor relationship skills (so that's definitely a male characteristic in this book - could that possibly be true of men in general?!), and I suppose it's a deliberate point that MacLaverty is making by having the father as a publican.

I'm interested in "classical" music, so the music connections in the book were of particular interest to me, especially the aspects of creativity and composition. The ending of the book seemed to me, however, to be a little to 'technical' in musical terms for this reader and I was somewhat disappointed that it finished that way. But that's probably my lack of imagination that's at fault. Normal readers would be most likely quite comfortable with the content.

This was my first MacLaverty book and I'd like to read more . . . but I'm not sure that I want to read about The Troubles of Northern Ireland, and all his other works seem to have that focus. ( )
  oldblack | Dec 23, 2013 |
In Grace Notes, Bernard MacLaverty has composed a wonderful piece about a talented young woman from every human angle: as daughter, single mother, victim (her alcoholic partner's physically abuses her),friend,student, colleague and finally composer! It's a book about death,parents and parenting, the Troubles, Communism,religion,mentoring, depression, passion and music.

The beginning of the novel introduces us to Catherine McKenna, a struggling young composer who comes home to Belfast from Scotland for her father's funeral. The relationship between her and her parents has been strained for some years; Catherine no longer practices her Catholic religion and unbeknownst to her parents, has given birth to a daughter while in Scotland. As Grace Notes unfolds, we witness Catherine trying to find a place for herself in the male-dominated profession of composing, caring for her baby while suffering from post-partum depression, living on welfare and and carving out time to create her music.
This is my first MacLaverty read: not easy, his pacing and depth need close attention. I found myself wondering how a man could write a woman's mind and emotions so authentically. Read the scene where Catherine gives birth: physically and emotionally, it's pitch perfect!

Grace notes are "notes between notes" that ornament a phrase but don't count in the rhythm...I still haven't figured that one out...
8 out of 10 Highly recommended ( )
  julie10reads | Jul 25, 2011 |
Showing 1-5 of 10 (next | show all)
added by geocroc | editLondon Review of Books, Tobias Jones (pay site) (Jul 1, 1997)

» Add other authors (2 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Bernard MacLavertyprimary authorall editionscalculated
Dabekaussen, EugèneTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Maters, TillyTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0393318419, Paperback)

Composer Catherine McKenna has more of a gift for music than happiness, but she has long been driven beyond harmonies (musical and personal) that her Belfast family can understand. Bernard MacLaverty renders both sides of the equation: Catherine's feminist and aesthetic striving and her mother's more traditional grasp; it's hard not to sympathize with Mrs. McKenna's impatient rejoinder, "You don't cope with music, you listen to it."

Grace Notes, MacLaverty's first novel since Cal, is as much about Irish identity--and possibility--as it is about art. Catherine's newest piece, a mass, includes the huge drums Protestants play in parades. "It was a scary sound--like thunder. Like the town was under a canopy of dark noise." Though her fellow Catholics see the drums as instruments of threat, Catherine is determined to integrate them into her composition.

Her return to Belfast for her father's funeral brings back several ghosts, among them an influential professor who spoke of grace notes--"the notes between the notes." This novel is full of such instances, wry snatches of conversation and unforgettable observations: the new Chinese restaurant that has had to offer chips to stay in business, or the pub that's "on a slight hill. When dogs pissed at the door the dark lines ran diagonally to the gutter." These transcend the occasional passage in which MacLaverty tries too hard to see into the life and rhythms of a female artist. The final section, however, a live radio concert of Catherine's piece, is a triumph for both woman composer and male author.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:01:52 -0400)

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A single mother is torn between duty to her child and her career as a pianist and composer. The woman is Irish and her problem is aggravated by church and parents. Lots of detail on musical composition.

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