Michael Gorra

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 460

With "Cal," one feels again the "terrible beauty," in Yeats's phrase, born of Ireland's torments. Its power is all the more impressive because nothing in Bernard Mac Laverty's first novel, "Lamb" (1980), quite prepares one for the beauty of this novel, for the delicacy and poise of its account of a teenage boy's futile attempt to stay clear of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. "Lamb" was the expertly told but unbearably claustrophobic story of an Irish Christian Brother who flees from a reform school with a student he loves and eventually murders. "Cal"'s world is as harsh as its predecessor's, but whereas "Lamb" could only shock its readers, this novel has the capacity to move them.

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The novel is filled with an unassuming knowledge of the way, people act and puts its knowledge tellingly at odds with the violence of its subject. It is both completely of its times in its description of Northern Ireland and completely outside them in its suggestion, as Graham Greene wrote in an essay on François Mauriac, "of another world against which the actions of its characters are thrown into relief." Mr. Mac Laverty, who was born in Belfast, takes no sides in Ulster's political battles. His viewpoint is Christian without being either Catholic or Protestant. "Cal" begins in the conscience, where ideology ends, and its meditation on human suffering and responsibility carries the complexity and amplitude of the very finest novels. (p. 1)

Mr. Mac Laverty makes no false steps in this novel, yet "Cal" is anything but a tiny marvel of technical perfection. It opens into a world larger than itself with a confidence that makes one take that world on the novel's terms. Every page carries a longing for the quiet life that its characters can never take for granted—Cal doing dishes; Marcella teaching him "not to be polite" when eating spaghetti but "to bite off mouthfuls and let them fall back on the plate." The sense of joy at moments stolen from the Troubles gives the novel a sad, expansive beauty and calls into question the efficacy of all sectarian violence.

Mr. Mac Laverty suggests that Cal's situation embodies that of Ulster as a whole: that behind the Troubles lies the attempt to avoid guilt in a world whose problems can only be solved by an acceptance of that guilt and the penance that follows it. "Cal" is finally a most moving novel whose emotional impact is grounded in a complete avoidance of sentimentality. One hesitates and then risks a prediction. In its full imaginative consideration of an apparently intractable political problem, "Cal" will become the "Passage to India" of the Troubles. (p. 17)

Michael Gorra "Guilt and Penance in Northern Ireland," in The New York Times Book Review, August 21, 1983, pp. 1, 17.

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