Subscriber OnlyBooks

Blank Pages and Other Stories: Deft and life-affirming short stories

Book review: Bernard MacLaverty’s skill is finding the benevolence at the heart of human nature

Blank Pages and Other Stories
Blank Pages and Other Stories
Author: Bernard MacLaverty
ISBN-13: 978-1787333154
Publisher: Jonathan Cape
Guideline Price: £14.99

A mark of a good short story collection is when you look at the contents page and can remember what each story is about without having to check. But rereading Bernard MacLaverty’s Blank Pages and Other Stories is no hardship either, for it is a deft and life-affirming collection by a master of the form.

The 12 stories in the new book are centred on the Belfast writer’s age-old preoccupations: love, loss, endurance, resilience, war, violence, the toxicity of perceiving human beings as “other”. They are bright bullets that lodge, written in spare but achingly accurate prose.

MacLaverty is known for his precision and the realistic details that bring his stories so memorably to life. Many times during the collection I wondered how he came upon certain details, that seem, cumulatively, to be beyond the imagination of the writer, beyond research or Google.

The End of Days, an evocative and profound read, imagines the last moments in the life of the painter Egon Schiele, watching his wife dying of Spanish flu in 1918, with eerie echoes of contemporary times as their maid abandons her post for the countryside: “Somehow your own family seemed like the only people in the world who would not have the sickness.”

READ MORE

Most unusual job

In Night Work, a woman making a death mask for a recently deceased man leaves home on a frosty night to do this most unusual job: “In the light of the moon, the hills in front of her looked like icebergs … From her hessian bag she took newspapers and slid one between the dead man’s head and the pillow.”

In The Fairly Good Samaritan, the hard life of an alcoholic is brutally clear, not only in the tragic details, but perhaps even more so in the small moments that count as joy, such as when someone buys him a drink: “Certain times of the year are better than others. An influx of tourists is always a good thing.” There is a neat and pleasing symmetry in this story, when a man in need of help turns out to be a saviour.

The range of the collection is remarkable. Different eras and backdrops abound, each one told with aplomb – Vienna in the first World War, sectarian Northern Ireland in the second, a snapshot of domestic upheaval in 1970s Belfast, mixed with contemporaries stories such as the rough ferry passage in Sounds and Sweet Airs, where a young woman plays her harp for an elderly couple after a chance meeting in The Quiet Lounge.

These soft touches of humour appear throughout. MacLaverty mines everyday life for nuggets, just as he did in his Booker-shortlisted novel Midwinter Break, which told the story of a middle-aged couple, a subject not often seen in fiction.

Derailed

Marriage is the focus of multiple stories in Blank Pages. The poignant title story shows an aging writer whose life and work has been derailed by the loss of his wife two years previously. On discovering her terminal illness, Kathy – the organised one in the marriage – begins to get her affairs in order: “She’d prepared and simplified them, so as he could work her system. Then her illness had slowed her down and she’d ceased to care. She left things behind her – like her clothes. And the cat. And silence.”

A mutual friend tries to help the widower to get back on his feet. She clears out his wife’s possessions, promising to bring them to an Oxfam across town, the reasoning left for the reader to fill in themselves.

MacLaverty is a clever writer who holds information back at the right times, but never in a tricksy or frustrating way. The opening piece, A Love Story, is a case in point: in wartime Belfast, a mother waits for news of her solider son, whose ship is lost at sea. A surprise message from her niece is followed by a scene shift that allows us to empathise with her experience, the feelings of hope, or dread.

In this and other stories – the spirited final piece, Blackthorns, particularly comes to mind – there are memorable acts of kindness from strangers, people who want to help each other, across divides that seem unbreachable. MacLaverty’s skill is to funnel deep into character to find the benevolence at the heart of human nature, a quality to be found in the great Irish short story writers, among others, John McGahern, William Trevor and Mary Lavin.

From opening lines that often begin simply and without naming a character – “She set the egg in its eggcup … He had never seen the like of it before” – to the thoughtful and textured descriptions throughout, Blank Pages is a gem of a collection that fully immerses from beginning to end.

Sarah Gilmartin

Sarah Gilmartin

Sarah Gilmartin is a contributor to The Irish Times focusing on books and the wider arts