Bernard Mac Laverty Julia O'Faolain - Essay

Julia O'Faolain

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"Lamb" reads like one of Aesop's fables. Plain, suspense-filled, streamlined, whittled down, it has the nerve to ignore verisimilitude in the interest of reminding us that reality is often more innocent and desperate than we think. Dostoyevsky was good at doing this, children's stories sometimes come close to it, and the aplomb with which Bernard Mac Laverty pulls off the trick in this first novel makes it look as easy as kite-flying….

[Owen and Michael] are two of a kind: innocent—Michael's love for the boy is not sexual but Christlike, and it is significant that his job at the Home was teaching carpentry—wary, but incapable of foresight, and the wavering growth of trust between them is tactfully and movingly graphed. (p. 13)

Some English reviewers of this novel were unconvinced by Michael's innocence about money—he is shocked to see how fast it goes—and they thought it flawed the narrative. This ignores the blend of canniness and simplicity common among monks, and Mr. Mac Laverty's persuasive implication that the flaw lies in the way things are. Though the events are seen through Michael's unsophisticated eyes, the author manages to convey parabolic resonances. For instance, the false name under which Michael checks into their first hotel is Mr. Abraham, and when he tries to give Owen a reading lesson, the story he happens on is that of Icarus. The reader feels menace before either lamb has a whiff of it. Intent on immediate problems—Owen's wetting hotel beds and having an epileptic fit at a football match—Michael takes a while to see the greater fatality pressing upon them. When it overtakes him in the dark passion of the final page, the reader is drawn into an emotional affinity rarely achieved by serious writing in our time. "He had started with a pure loving simple ideal but it had gone foul on him, turned inevitably into something evil. It had been like this all his life, with the Brothers, with the very country he came from." The country Mr. Mac Laverty comes from is Northern Ireland, and although the political allusion is unobtrusive, it is enriching. Simple ideals are indeed perilous; the rings of resonance widen to engulf us all. This is an impressive book. (pp. 13, 22)

Julia O'Faolain, "Irish Innocence," in The New York Times Book Review, November 2, 1980, pp. 13, 22.∗