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Grace Notes: A Novel Paperback – November 17, 1998

4.4 out of 5 stars 17 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

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. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Kirkus Reviews

A lyric novel about music and motherhood. Catherine McKenna is an Irish-born pianist and composer whose emotional turbulence sets the tone for a significant part of the story's soft yet visceral verbal music. Catherine's unusually delicate sense of psychic balance is thrown off by two events in particular: the birth of her first child, Anna, and the sudden death of her estranged yet beloved father. Catherine is not married; her mate is a (mostly) lovable drunkard. As an iconoclastic only child who left her family's home in a small town near Belfast for a university education and career in Scotland, the adult Catherine rarely visits or phones her disappointed parents. Her musical career, though, is flourishing, with the BBC broadcasting her work and commissions coming her way at last. Using flashbacks, interior monologues, and dialogue, MacLaverty very gradually creates a complex, dimensional character, until the third-person narrative seems to speak directly to us from Catherine's struggling soul: ``It gave Catherine a strange feeling, this invisible cascade of darkness. She felt suffocated by it quilting downwards--whatever it was. This diminuendo of light brought about by something intangible--odourless--invisible.'' The drawback of MacLaverty's mildly impressionistic approach is the slow, even anticlimactic pace of some scenes, those portraying the domesticity of Catherine's relatively cloistered life, for example, or those, especially, involving her father's death, which open the story. Catherine's character, as it emerges from the fragmentary narrative, tends to overshadow everyone else in a novel guided less by ``story'' than by musical tides and perturbations. It's clear that MacLaverty (Walking the Dog, 1995, etc.) has tried to do something rather difficult: to suggest the interior life of an artist struggling to balance the urgent demands of creating music and the equally pressing demands of life. Very often, he succeeds in this complex portrait of a woman who is, first and foremost, an artist. -- Copyright ©1997, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; First Norton paperback edition (November 17, 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393318419
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393318418
  • Product Dimensions: 0.6 x 0.1 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (17 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #956,348 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
This book is not what it seems. First: the subject matter is gloomy: composer Catherine McKenna, recovering from a postnatal depression, is returning to violence stricken Northern Ireland for the funeral of her father. Not a glimmer of humour in sight. Seems depressing, but does not leave you depressed. I find that remarkable.
Second: it may also seem a simple little book, with not much happening. But go to the trouble to read between the lines, and you will get a lot in return. Because grace notes are the unobtrusive notes that seemingly hardly have a function, but that in some subtle and undefinable way make a piece of music into something special. MacLaverty writes in this way. His book has the same effect that a beautiful piece music has: you can't tell exactly why, but you are deeply moved by it.
What does happen in this novel is that Catherine must try to reconcile the Northern-Irish heritage she has tried to leave behind with the motherhood she can hardly cope with and reconcile both with her work. In the end it is the music that makes her whole again. In a beautiful finale we are shown the healing effect of art. Not a book for those who want a page-turner, but warmly recommended for those who like a deeply felt and subtle insight into a woman's soul. It is amazing that it was written by a man.
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Format: Hardcover
This book has almost everything to become a highly successful novel. Based on short phrases, its amazing style, seemed unthinkable in the serious literature of post-Faulknerian age and appertained only to pulp fiction, is clear and efficacious in precise descriptions of nuances of human feelings and wee but important details. The story of Catherine McKenna, an Irish talanted pianist and composer, her struggle against 'a testosterone brigade' (masculine world) for independence in private life and art is an extremely advantageous theme nowadays. A process of musical creative work with its culs-de-sac, agonies and estasies is depicted thoroughly. Telling only about several crucial moments in the heroine's life (such as her father's funeral, a birth of her daughter, a breaking-off of distressing relations with her boyfriend-drunkard, a performance of her first orchestral composition) and masterly supplementing them with pertinent flashbacks, Bernard MacLaverty relates the story of every flesh: being a child with a genuine love to her parents and simultaneously with a hate for freedom restrictions; acquiring long-expected independence from them only to be held in servitude of passions and actualize worst parent's nightmares; becoming herself a mother with the doomed desire to save her own daughter from all evils and pains of the world.
This novel was ill-starred: if it were published a year later, it could be awarded with the Booker Prize. But in 1997 it had to yield the Prize to A.Roy's wonderful book. 'Grace Notes' is a novel of calculated beauty (even an appearance of Protestant drums in Catherine's composition was anticipated), 'The God of Small Things' is a novel-flash overwhelming its readers with unpredictable gamut of human emotions.
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Format: Paperback
Bernard MacLaverty was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, but has lived for many years in Scotland. An accomplished fiction writer, he is the author of two novels: Lamb, and Cal (both of which were made into successful movies), as well as several collections of short stories. This year, his third novel, Grace Notes, was short-listed for the prestigious Booker Prize.
Grace Notes is the superbly-written story of Catherine McKenna's difficult relationship with her parents, her doomed love-affair with the man who is the father of her child, and her efforts to achieve personal and artistic freedom. The novel begins with a funeral, and ends with the realization of the protagonist's musical ambitions in the form of the successful performance and radio broadcast of her own musical composition. In between this gloomy, inauspicious opening and this triumphant finale lies the rich and finely nuanced story of this woman's struggle for independence.
The novel opens with Catherine's return from Scotland, where she now lives, to the family home in a small town in Ulster. Her father has recently died, and the visit brings back many memories of her childhood. The story is told and her feelings are conveyed with sensitivity and precision. She has grown apart from her parents over the years, and they have been out of communication for some time. Indeed, the last time she spoke to her father they quarreled, and he forbade her to come back again. For this reason, the homecoming, and the funeral, are especially difficult for both mother and daughter.
Catherine is a gifted composer, and recently went on a study visit to Kiev to study with a famous European composer.
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Format: Paperback
This book is a short read, but not as easy at is seems at the first sight.
Catherine McKenna is a young girl, an only child struggeling to be free from the bounds the her Northern Irish parents. She has a very special talent for music, and her music teacher from childhood becomes a very special person in her life. She teaches her to read the notes between the notes, the Grace Notes, and this gives special meaning to Catherine's life and music. And also special meaning to the book. The book can be read as words within words, which makes the book full of grace notes.
What fascinates me most with the book is the way Bernard MacLaverty shows us how to read or look at music just like we read or look at paintings. Having read several books about the stories behind Vermeers painting, MacLaverty also uses a Vermeer painting to show music.
I can fully agree with a the reviewer Tobias Hill from The Times: "The strongest impression left by Grace Notes is that of its central image-og the 'notes between the notes' which seem to compose themselves - of a life happening while it's heroine is busy making other plans...If architecture is frozen music, Grace Notes is the literary equivalnt, full of its own powerful rhythm.
Britt Arnhild Lindland
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