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Grace Notes Hardcover – September 1, 1997
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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.
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.
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What does the title mean? Catherine, the protagonist, is a musician. Grace notes in music are notes that embellish, but do not affect, the melody line. Having a musical background, and having read this book and thought about it, I am not sure what there is anything that embellishes, but does not affect the story line.
Another definition of grace is: simple elegance or refinement, and I think it is more appropriate.
Notes is an equally ambiguous word : musical signs, to observe with care, to put into writing, or to remark or take special mention.
Catherine grew up in a loving, conservative, Catholic family in a town in Northern Ireland. Musically gifted, she leaves home to study in Glasgow, where she finishes with honors. Breaking out of what she sees as the narrowness of her upbringing, she becomes estranged from her parents.
She takes a job teaching music at a school on the island of Islay, Scotland, where she hopes she can devote herself to musical composition. But in her isolation and loneliness, she takes up with a man completely beneath her, and falls pregnant.
The book can be described as two complementary novellas, a novel containing two ending.
In the first, Catherine returns to her parents’ home to attend the funeral of her father. The tension between daughter and mother is palpable, especially when her mother learns for the first time that she has a granddaughter over a year old and still unbaptized. The priest asks Catherine to play the church organ at her father’s funeral service, which on the one hand, relieves her of having to participate in a ceremony of a faith she no longer believes, but yet, on the other, denies her the opportunity to grieve with family and community, regardless how strained their personal relationships are.
The only potentially bright moment while home is visiting her first piano teacher, who is clearly dying.
The first novella ends on a rather bleak note – that one cannot return to one’s childhood home.
The second novella succinctly covers Catherine’s pregnancy and the birth of Anna. and Catherine’s subsequent postpartum depression. Dave, Anna’s alcoholic father, becomes increasingly abusive and violent, such that Catherine steals away with Anna to Glasgow, where they exist in marginal poverty while Catherine devotes herself to composing a piece commissioned by the BBC for a radio program of new artists and “local” music.
The second novella contains a magnificent crescendo, as she composes her piece, revises it with the conductor, sees it through rehearsal, and finally, finally. experiences the exhilaration of the composition’s crowning success.
I did not find found anything extraneous to the melody of the plot, but well-modulated elegance and refinement noted every step of the way.
I don't want to give spoilers so I'll just say there's a mystery relationship that's referred to throughout the first third of the book. It's a pivotal plot element. MacLaverty unfolds this wonderfully well, enough to keep you interested but not so much that you want to throw the book across the room. This is the first of his books I've read and I can see why he was shortlisted to win the Booker. He writes well, so well that I was surprised when I happened upon a disjoint. These disjoints clashed with the seamlessness of most of the book. I'm sure sometimes he meant to do this but other times it was such an unnecessary blip that I felt it had to be an editing problem. Last there was a psychological condition that just didn't ring true to me; not that the condition doesn't exist but not in the way he wrote about it for this character. Overall this was an enjoyable book especially if you enjoy classical music. Here's one of my favorite quotes from "Grace Notes", "Violas sound like violins with a cold".
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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Catherine McKenna is a young girl, an only child struggeling to be free from the bounds the her...Read more