Matters of Life and Death
By Bernard MacLaverty
Hardcover: 240 pages
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company (September 17, 2006)
Bernard MacLaverty now has five novels to his name and five collections of short stories, too – and Matters of Life and Death (2006) is his best collection of short stories to date. Not that there was anything amiss with what went before. But there seems to be a thematic quality to Matters of Life and Death which necessarily ensures that the whole is always going to be weightier and more meaningful than the sum of its parts.
There is a hint, too, in this book of James Joyce at his best. Well, certainly, something of his short story, ‘The Dead’, is resurrected for me in ‘Learning to Dance’, where the parents of bereaved children are remembered in that they would take to the floor, dancing. And I was reminded, too, of James Plunkett’s Strumpet City, also Dublin-based, when an elderly woman recalls love shared albeit long since past, immediately prior to expiring.
And a further element would appear to be at work here. Because – well, given Bernard MacLaverty’s age (for what it’s worth, the same as my own when I was immersed in this book recently) – Yes, there would appear to be a further element at work here, and it cannot fail to do otherwise than make the reader suspect, rightly or wrongly, that the hospital outpatient featured in one short story in receipt of an unexpected medical reprieve may well be the author himself. “Hence,” as John O’Hara (Butterfield 8, Ten North Frederick) explains himself in the Author’s Note to his 1967 collection, Waiting for Winter, “the title.” Come 1970, O’Hara would be dead, though, in view of that speculative medical reprieve, I do, of course, envisage (and hope for) nothing short of longevity for Bernard McClaverty. Indeed, I anticipate his continuing to write short stories for many years to come. Correction: half-hours to come. (See www.bernardmaclaverty.com – his very individualistic website where, amongst other unusual glimpses he permits us into his writer’s life, he confides: “I now devote all of my life to being a part-time writer.”).
None of which is to say anything at all about a couple of unexpectedly tough action stories you’ll find here, each of them dealing with incidents, inhumane and abhorrent, that occur against the backdrop of the most recent period of northern Irish lawlessness. And the film rights to one of them (‘A Trusted Neighbour’) will have been snapped up immediately the book came hot off the press if justice anywhere prevails.
Ah, but does it?
Frankly, I doubt that it does. Even when it comes to Matters of Life and Death (2006). And certainly not while so many British film and television producers seem to be committed to reworking old themes that are safely out of copyright.
Reviewed by Bill Keeth