Bernard Mac Laverty

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Thomas Kelly

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The tales [in Secrets and Other Stories] are recognizably Irish for setting and wit—here with the bite of a Belfast accent—and usually display that ease of language peculiar to the Irish writer and exasperating to the American or British. MacLaverty has obvious talent and discipline, but he often lacks the consciousness of the tradition and techniques with which he is working to achieve successfully the modern voice within anecdotal structures.

The opening story, "The Exercise," is endearing, the sort that usually promises a good collection. A young boy thinks his father, a publican, can do no wrong; he gets the man's help on a Latin lesson; next day, the boy is chosen to read his answers in class, and all of them are wrong…. There are no traumatic re-evaluations, no tarnishing of the world. He still loves his father very much, but now with a bit more wisdom from the lesson he has learned. Were the volume to continue in such a vein, it would be enjoyable and commendable. The second story, "A Rat and Some Renovations," shows MacLaverty's ability in a different mode: farce. It is a terse and very amusing anecdote, the kind of reminiscence a friend might tell over a drink. What follows, however, demonstrates MacLaverty's lack of control when combining the anecdotal framework with the desire for modern restraint.

"St. Paul Could Hit the Nail on the Head" does not begin with the warmth of childhood memory or the bite of wit. Its more sombre tone, even pace, and strain of silence between the characters—a housewife and a distant cousin she hardly knows, a priest on his yearly visit en route to stay with a friend—all alert in the reader that appetite ignorant of the anecdote. We expect some insight, some touching or exposure of souls, something to come of the care taken in creating the atmosphere. This is almost given: we learn that the old priest's friend has died…. The well-crafted ending retains its pace, is terse and objective, and touches the reader's emotions. Seemingly, it is a deeply felt story, even deeply written, but what has really been offered, what given? We receive another anecdote, this time pathetic rather than amusing. All that is said is that it is hard to make new friends in old age. Most details are wasted—her being married to a Protestant whose job is wrecking buildings, the emphasis on an epistle of St. Paul. There are certainly the beginnings of characterization, but they are all invested, or dissipated, in the anticlimactic ending, in the anecdote. The characters have little flesh, little pulse.

There is nothing wrong with that in itself. The problem lies in what is offered. The author's tone and craft are harmonized for intimacy with the reader, for insight of some degree, but the materials on which he goes to work are unsuitable. The story suffers from the author's not being fully aware of, or decisive about, his purpose and his tools. It suffers, especially, from anecdote. This is not to say that the remainder of Secrets is given over to such failures. There are several well-conceived stories executed with control. "Anodyne," another story of making friends in old age, develops character more successfully than does "St. Paul," though it, too, is unsure of direction at the end. "Between Two Shores" attempts to concentrate almost wholly on character, and is better than most of the stories, but fails for lack of purpose, for lack of a specific point of view by which to direct the reader: it is more an overwrought character sketch. Still, it exhibits...

(This entire section contains 744 words.)

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MacLaverty's strengths; when he concentrates on characterization, he is more in control, more conscious of his craft. (pp. 156-57)

Though some of the other stories are good, and all are at least tolerable, the failures and the awkward mixture detract from such a fine story as "Secrets." The worst story is "Hugo," and I suspect that the author favors it. This tale, again, relies on anecdote to carry the significance implied in the self-conscious voice and the several regrettable direct asides to remind the reader that something important is intended. There is nothing important in the story. Yet, MacLaverty is not to be dismissed. The trial-and-error search for a voice, the uncertainty and unevenness of Secrets do not obscure MacLaverty's talent. (p. 158)

Thomas Kelly, in a review of "Secrets and Other Stories," in Éire-Ireland, Vol. XVI, No. 1, Spring, 1981, pp. 155-58.


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