Bernard Mac Laverty John Walsh - Essay

John Walsh

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"Give me a big enough wedge and I'll split the world" says, young Cal McCrystal [the protagonist of Cal] in an uncharacteristic burst of rhetoric. But all around him the world is already split beyond the powers of healing—he lives with his father under a kind of siege, in the last Catholic household on a Protestant estate…. He is beset alike by the Protestant toughs who beat him up on the way home and set his house ablaze, and by the implacable Republicans—the murderously clodlike Crilly and the smoothly rational Skeffington—who try to elicit his support on IRA missions.

Above all he is beset by guilt—the memory of a killing in which he drove the get-away car, and the memory of a voice crying a name, "Marcella!". When he meets Marcella again, the worst possible thing happens—he falls in love with her. As their lives pull together—he moves into the cottage next door, she lends him her books, they go brambling—it is clear that a localised cataclysm is imminent amidst all the soldiers, the guns and the neighbourhood threats.

MacLaverty spins his tale with the minimum of fuss and as a thriller it works extremely well. It's given an additional dimension, though, by the flexibility of his style, which accommodates both the banalities of dance halls and teenage hard men, and the quirkily poetic neologisms of the Northern Irish soul…. We are in Seamus Heaney country here, immaculately wedded to a Jennifer Johnston tone of urban pathos. It works extremely well, lifting this story of modern Ulster life into something quite out of the ordinary.

John Walsh, in a review of "Cal," in Books and Bookmen, No. 328, January, 1983, p. 32.