Never has a book been so beautifully noisy – Book Review: Grace Notes by Bernard Mac Laverty

Publisher: Vintage
Selected Edition: Paperback
ISBN: 0-09-977801-7
Published: 1997
No. of Pages: 277
Price: £5.99
SHORTLISTED FOR THE 1997 BOOKER PRIZE

In Bernard Mac Laverty’s Grace Notes, Catherine McKenna, a composer, struggles to cope with post-natal depression, the break-up of her relationship with the child’s father, Dave, and the death of her own father. The novel opens as Catherine returns to her home town in Northern Ireland for her father’s funeral, trying to rebuild a connection with her mother after an estrangement and recalling the events that separated them. On her return from Ireland, in a series of parts we see her life on Islay with Dave, her return to Glasgow and eagerness to see her daughter Anna again, and her battle with the depression which threatens to suffocate her, trying to bring to life the music of her inner hearing, and share her musical compositions with the world.

Grace Notes is a novel that sings, filled with music and the sounds that life can create. Everyday things are given a new aural quality, and I found myself listening out for these new sounds, like I was learning how sound could be written down. Never has a book been so beautifully noisy.

This novel really did seem alive, changing and it was such a revelation to think, How can a book make music? I felt like I could hear everything that Catherine was hearing, for example, at her father’s funeral:

In the silence every noise they made seemed magnified. This hiss of their overcoats as they squeezed past the kneeling figures – the creak of the floorboards, the whispered excuse me’s.

I love the different ways that sounds are described; “the whisper of her grandmother’s thread being drawn through the material”, the way that walkmans in the ears of schoolkids “sizzled and tished”. But the beauty of Mac Laverty’s descriptions is not limited to sound. It stretches further, taking sights into its arms and turning them into something new, a beautiful new way of looking at things. Catherine looks out on the city of Glasgow:

It was a clear night and the city lights glittered on the ground beneath her. Yellow sodium lights in chains and necklaces, loops and patterns – the whole city was like a flattened chandelier

She sees the city lights as “One light for every person” but then describes “a black wedge of darkness beneath her which she could not, at first, understand”, the oppressive effect of her own depression embodied by the River Clyde, stretching from under her towards her home town, “towards the west and Ireland”. At times this depression threatens to overwhelm her and she stares at herself, crying, in the mirror, willing herself to get a grip. The rhythmic quality of the words, the short sentences, the rambling sentences and Catherine’s remarks on the world become very vivid. Mac Laverty’s prose permits the reader inside Catherine’s head and I felt that I was there with her, trying to understand everything as much as she was.

There comes a time at the birth of her daughter when the beauty of new life is so clear to her and the lack of music to represent itself seems incomprehensible to Catherine. Slowly, it dawns on her that the reason for this lack of music to celebrate birth is:

Because the history of music was all male. […] Composers were men and they were usually barred from the birthing room. It was something that happened off-stage and was not worthy of their manly attention.

It is particularly telling that at this time the father of her own child is far removed; Catherine is giving birth in Glasgow and Dave is on the remote island of Islay, making up excuses as to why he cannot come down to see them, telling her that he had whetted the baby’s head, drinking in celebration, spending another evening in a haze of alcohol which is instrumental in the breakdown of their relationship and his increasingly violent behaviour towards Catherine. She begins writing her own celebration of her daughter’s birth:

From nowhere a breathing rhythm came to her head and a three-note sequence. She heard it in her head. A moment later it added two notes and became better, a five-note phrase.

The creation of music, like the creation of her daughter, is something organic, the sounds growing in her mind and becoming one cohesive piece. Everything to her is music, it is how she sees the world and makes sense of it, and it is through music that Catherine can begin to purge herself of the poisonous influence of her partner, Dave and have the confidence in herself to leave him.

Bernard Mac Laverty’s novel Grace Notes is a celebration of music and its presence in our everyday lives, how it weaves its way into our worlds and unless we really listen we filter it out. It’s a beautiful, and at times, heartbreaking novel that opened my ears to listening to the sound of things again. As Catherine’s Granny says…

It must be a terrible affliction not to be able to hear […] It’s even worse not to be able to listen.

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2 Comments

Filed under Book Reviews

2 responses to “Never has a book been so beautifully noisy – Book Review: Grace Notes by Bernard Mac Laverty

  1. debbierodgers

    Ooh – what a quote to close with! I’m intrigued by how a book can make music. This is going near the top of my wish-to-read list!

    • Jennifer Wallace

      Pleased to hear it. 🙂 It got me really interested in classical music too, so much so that I went to see a symphony orchestra!

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