24 thoughts on “BLANK PAGES by Bernard MacLaverty


    Mkaiow … Mkgnao

    “When he lifted it, it was damp and soundless.”

    …the latter a newspaper wet from being misdelivered in a rare red alert storm after a heatwave, just as recently in my own real-time. He blamed the cartoonists and the unpolitical weather. Well, more and more I misread things these days before reviewing them. Comes with the ageing territory. Well, weather was ever unpolitical till climate change, I guess. An ageing writer, Frank, his wife Kathy having sadly died two years before, but still with an ageing cat called Lui (not Rover!) licking the bun paper today, a cat that makes Frank dig deeper today into James Joyce.

    He often still talks to Kathy. Kathy’s friend Teresa comes round today to clear her clothes for Oxfam. Mixed motives in Frank, a delightful William-Trevorine portrait with ingredients that even he could not have managed, such as the added unfurled frills from the pencil sharpener (“The story’s beginning to unfold.”) like cutting his fingernails, depending which hand is used, and a unique unfolding or unfurling of this story, I infer from afar, by cat fleas as the letters of words on the writer’s block of blank copy paper pages that he lets float one by one to cover the carpet as well as Kathy’s hand-knotted rug….

    With badly itched ankles, he takes the cat to the vet, and, indeed, old men often need to be put down like their pages. And I near wept in empathy.

    “He sat imagining being pounced on by something twenty times your own size. And then, whatever it was, playing with you, toying with you.”


    “The old man leaned on the iron guardrail, looking down into the water. His weight was on his elbows…”

    With his two naive grandchildren, Granda, with his dodgy heart, suddenly loses them and gradually panics amidst the exhibits in the themed glasshouses with worlds of natural things inside, safe from the storm outside, a different sort of storm to the old man’s storm in the ‘Blank Pages’ story, natural worlds in climate stasis not change, worlds with living creatures that are more than just tactile to us as evoked by this prose. The kids had a yen for seeing the black fish they always missed seeing beneath or behind the weed. The little girl’s cold hand was to him “like holding a wee prawn.” Strangely the story I just reviewed (here) minutes before starting to read ‘Glasshouses’ also had reference to ‘old man’s beard’ and a ‘brooch’… here…”A stone transformed. From a simple rock to a brooch.” And now a “bench was engraved with the words ‘We’re all on a speck in space for a tick in time.’” — “The old man settled onto his elbows again,…”

    Yet, tellingly, he had them in the palm of his hand all the time, not just the cold prawn.

  3. Sounds and Sweet Airs

    “A third girl appeared. She had a fat rucksack on her back and was wheeling what could only be a harp in a black cover. Sean nudged his wife’s elbow.”

The perfect elbow-trigger, the first appearance of the crucial girl with her harp in the passenger lounge (travelling with it for her classical music loving father’s birthday treat) on a cross-Irish Sea ferry, as seen by an aging couple, with whom and their backstory we get to know very well, amid the evocatively conveyed swaying and furrowing scenes through gradually obsolete ‘permanent waves’, as it were, of such a ferry, after they had travelled to their boarding of it by the Irish boat train. The man has just had one cataract operation — a possible oblique allusion to stormy conditions, along with a ‘dark clutter’ of MacLaverty cranes and sick bags and ship stabilisers and ‘The Tempest’ and Titanic and three gannets keeping time later with the music of meaning — and we watch him drop fridge-kept drops into this eye and we sense he sees sepia scenes through the other unoperated-upon eye…(I am surprised the ferry had such a fridge facility!)

    It is a wondrous scene where the girl’s unrehearsed and requested harp performance takes place in the lounge, to which we are alerted by someone who “elbowed the woman beside him and she followed the direction of his look, saw the harp and raised her eyebrows in delight.” A “listening-quiet” — what an impossibly rhapsodic phrase! She finishes with a composer “in his cave of permanent darkness” to ironically recall the earlier waves of sea and hairdressing. But do artists know everything, I ask. This author knows. (He even knows of nose jewellery that looks like “silver snot”, it seems!)

    “He always maintained that music was a way of thinking without words.”


    This is a great story to add to the field of literature whereon I regularly work and take due cast of. And those who have followed and acted upon my reviews from the beginning should note this fact, i.e. that I am adding a new writer to the canon of the gestalt. MacLaverty, MacLaverty. The ‘outwardly respectable.’ A missing link.

    A seriously creepy story with a positive kick in its tail. Giving a meaning to death and fame, “Everybody says he was a man of immense importance. To the whole wide world. But to me he was…’ She didn’t finish her sentence, or else she was crying again.”

    But this is a story about a different woman; she assists or understudies a sculptor who took her under her wing, and one day he sends a boy out at night to fetch her to a job he can’t do because he had dropped a gas canister on his foot.

    Immaculately described, and we spend much time working out the nature of her mission. Via mountains of books, ‘ewer’ within ‘newspapers’ — forming a ‘pale cowpat’ with ‘elbow’, for me, cast as letters within it. An ‘impossible’ cast of an arm, or of a body’s more secret shrine, and casual sex affairs. “Had this man’s soul gone yet?” I specially relished reading this major story for my canon of reviews, but I have left bits of it unmoulded, for fear of spoiling it. But I have a perfectly detailed review written out just to keep for myself (a thing I rarely do) — needing to use it later.

    “‘But I suppose he is beyond harm.’ The woman of the house began to cry. Lily reached out and touched her elbow. The woman seemed grateful for the gesture and nodded her thanks.”

  5. Pingback: NIGHT WORK by Bernard MacLaverty | The Gestalt Real-Time Reviews of Books


    “Had her bones begun to settle? Was she growing downwards?”

    A man who is called suddenly by plane to a business meeting in a different country (UK to Eire?) instead of using Skype, today the easier Zoom, I guess. A touching story that induced tears at the end,
    While there, he’d see his senile mother in a home, without being able to pre-warn he was coming. He buys flowers for her, some going cheap as they were nearing their end, synchronistically factored, as it happens, into a woman’s obsession to spurn cruelly cut flowers about and hour ago in THIS Julian Barnes story!
    He spots her in the street within a nurse-shepherded crocodile of old folks before he reaches the home, and he contrasts the way she dresses now with her strict matching of smart clothes in her younger days. Beautifully and sadly evoked, as is the soup mix he sees her toying with in a grocery shop. She no longer knows her onions, although she thinks she does …with the grown-up pocket money the home ekes out to her. And amid Health and Safety nods, we watch him in moments of growing anxiety, late at the airport for his flight home, eventually having his bag searched by security wherein he had stowed her soup mix and a jar of jam she had taken, a jar that the security officer empties as if it were his mother’s pride running out or her hatred of food wastage, as well as her wasted age? The woman with a phobia about being stolen from in the home was now stealing these things herself? And I recall his earlier hearing three separate blackbirds and of… “He took her by the elbow and edged her out of the shop onto the pavement.”


    “Then she heard a sound. Definitely. The smallest imaginable. That ‘s’ sound some people make when praying.”

    It is significant she needed to be woken up by an untoward sound.
    “She slept soundly the couple of nights her son came home from London.”

    The army on one side in a conflict, forcibly and distressingly enter her house, a sixty year old widow, her elderly mother at least upstairs. Her MacLaverty behaving cat, too, “alert” et al.
    Why the sense of guilt? The red as a cherry cricket ball being polished when it really didn’t need polishing, other than to spin its story? A roof space that ran the length of the terrace.

    I think I know what happens, viz. the milk pan, the rosary, the net curtains, the darting cat, the white sewn seam, and whether one side or other in a war includes the playing customs of good old cricket. It was not cricket to kill, I guess.
    A fascinating and lingering story. The mystery of omniscience as a decoy.

  8. A Love Picture

    “If the wireless was anything to go by, eggs too would be rationed soon enough.”

    This is a wartime story in Belfast, but it could be today, too! That glimpse of truth again, this time in a passé white rooster Pathé news upon an enormous cinema screen, a face recognised quite far away in neutral Ireland. Gracie and her sadness (“It was like trying not to see when your eyes were open. The thoughts came and came. Were unstoppable.”) Gracie and her huge mangle and the mangle cinema projectors and chopping the top off her egg. ‘Lost at sea is for ever.’
    A story that should be anthologised time and time again, to be read even when its projectionist has gone home. Full of suspense and poignancy and memories. Of loss, bereavement, and possible relief. One of those classic short stories of which William Trevor would have been proud. And it has one of the most perfect elbow moments early on (“Your friend Anne can do my job.’ ‘What?’ ‘Keep you awake. With her elbow.’”), a moment that prefigures another crucial elbow moment later when a pregnant girl is “elbowed” awake so that she can tell older widowed Gracie about what she thought she glimpsed of truth. Enabling Gracie’s rite of passage to see a special showing of a love picture, one without Cary Grant! And I also loved the cinema ambiance itself, memories of my own watching cigarette smoke ‘writhing’ in the projection beams. Goats’ eyes, and blackouted headlights of cars, notwithstanding.

    “Being in the balcony felt like she was in the lower jaw of some huge beast about to swallow her.”

  9. Pingback: A Love Picture by Bernard MacLaverty | The Gestalt Real-Time Reviews of Books


    “‘It matters not how crooked the hook, the picture can always be hung straight.’”

    A smelly old man, a bit alcoholic, stoical, plays fat card patience, and there is anxious Mrs Downstairs on the first floor who may have been the story’s nominated FGS by looking out for him, except when he finds her front door uncharacteristically ajar he discovers seriously flaked out and he rifles her Napoleon brandy but tries to make her comfortable, and eye-drops into her some of the brandy in a session of ‘cheers’, before the ambulance he called arrived… so I guess he was a FGS, too. I suppose we are all FGS’s of sorts or hope we are at least. By why did the ambulance woman ‘dance’ down the stairs? A job well done for all and sundry?

  11. THE END OF DAYS: Vienna 1918

    “I’ve definitely got it.”

    This is uncanny! I’d think these were the very words someone used this morning when declaring a COVID’s test’s findings. But I carry on with my own ‘art’ the same day by reviewing this story of the Spanish Flu where something similar happens! Not only that, but it centres on her being drawn by her artist husband, as the war’s repercussions pans out, a disc of light reflected from a door’s keyhole in resonance with this author’s similar disc of light reflection in his story ‘Up the Coast’, alongside scavenging for a door as firewood! He CLIMBED a ladder to sketch her dead body, in resonance with his discipleship from KLIMT. Ironic that his

    ‘Edi, Edi,’ he said, trying to calm her.

    ‘Edi,’ he said. ‘Please.’

    was perhaps a defiant ‘Die, Die’ to tempt its opposite! Defiance made manifest.

    Hearing a child’s heartbeat within a belly, a sight he called a basin when a boy, but not hearing her heartbeat…So much of the drawing of the dead from above.

    And so much more to report on. You will have to read the story.
    Meantime, black snow over the Danube, as he tries his boyhood Catholic absolution for his art by fire. But his art of drawn lines will subsist, surely..

    “Sometimes the line is like the human voice. It sings. Variations and complexities. And the line gives back, just as the voice does. It reveals. Volume as loudness. Volume as bulk. Even the emptiness on the page is part of the voice.”


    I am still worried about the slate that was left behind, when the visible dangerous slate was removed. The hidden overhang of this story. Plus the overhang of religion and its keynote divisions as effects upon a common Irish family.
    Another great MacLaverty work. An adolescent boy called Chris who meets a girl called Paula, at a beach party, with and against the seeds of youth, a tale of young love and, in view of her religious zeal, unrequited? This dismantling of an old piano, the dust gatherer itself, full of singsong memories, and a dead father — like disembowelling a living entity from its scrap-worthy metal frame. Descriptions of such an entity that hang in the mind forever, I guess.

    “‘I must go,’ said Paula. ‘It was lovely to meet you all.’
    Chris touched her elbow as he guided her into the hall.”


    “Everything rose up the sides, including the foam. Archimedes. And Hitchcock.”


    A woman’s mind wandering like the bath foam she is in. And inside out Cinderella dolls, heads at both ends. She is a teacher soon to retire and a would be writer, and this story is possibly the one she sold to the Independent when she finished it, questioning the empathy of ‘men’ to imagine things as well as women, to imagine being stymied by the equivalence of a baby’s pram in the hall or a demented mother’s zimmer. Her mother (“Two ugly sisters rolled into one.”) who is this story’s real wandering scenario in her slippers and nightie and our heroine trying to follow her in the dark streets and the people who populate such streets. Till, after a looming grey church, that memory of a Pope’s blessing falsely aged but now aged again, and that crucial moment she finds her…
    “The old woman stood with her elbows on the balustrade, staring down into the water.”
    Not forgetting earlier the daddy longlegs like creatures burdened with ironing-boards — just as in THE UNCONSOLED? And slipping down the pillows, getting smaller, we Swiftian people…

  14. BLACKTHORNS: County Derry 1942

    “He put his elbows on the table and leaned closer to the American. ‘It’s a religious thing and some people refer to them as “black men”.’”

    This is story of races and sticks, not relays but walking sticks, blackthorn sticks as poison and poison’s poison as struts. Black and white and Jewish, and Protestant or RC, and, yes, a situation where orange can be black. A time when Ulster was colonised by British soldiers, then American white and black, the latter segregated for latrine cleaning. A RC man stuck with a stick into lethal septicaemia and with 4 daughters. A Protestant doctor and an American doctor as major with a poison’s poison, early anti-biotics. FDR or Churchill? Three nails in a bedroom door. And black ice. MacLaverty packs literary punches, and it is often fascinating to wonder why it is so difficult to fathom out how.

    “As if they took their orders from the centre of the earth and not from the slant of the forest floor.”

    “Bringing children into the world, reducing their neighbour’s ration of pain, smoothing the exit of the old.”


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