Valentine Cunningham

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 445

Marinaded in legend, memorialised in endless song, televised nightly, no politics are more self-consciously alert to the way they appear on stage than the Irish sort. And Bernard Mac Laverty's gripping new political thriller, 'Cal', grips not least because of its attentiveness to how things look, and to how people obsessively watch themselves, within the Ulster frame. Mac Laverty's people keep wanting to take snapshots of, as well as potshots at, each other. Eager voyeurs, they peer continually through windows, through lenses, through camera shutters. What they, and we, see are beauties and terrors awesomely mingling.

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Telling moments are stilled, with daunting indiscriminateness, into the illuminated clarities of poetic vision and into chilling pauses for deadliness or death. 'Freeze,' scream the blacked-up soldiery as they burst into young Cal's derelict rural hideaway. Life stands still, filled only with the onion pongs of fear from the arm-pits, as Cal revs up the getaway car outside the off-licence that brutish Crilly is robbing on behalf of the Provos. Cal never forgets his glimpse through yet another getaway car window of the reservist policeman being blasted out of life on his own doorstep. And, in-between, Cal's farmwork focuses the sights, sounds and smells of Ulster fields as magically as in a Seamus Heaney poem (the 'slabbery' dung of cows, the 'tink' of sledgehammer on woodchopper's wedge, the 'withered buff potato tops lying flat on the ground'), while his wistful passion celebrates the beauties of sultry Marcella—Marcella clothed, unclothed, with her child, at her desk in the public library.

Try as they might, of course, Marcella and Cal can't prevent the Troubles spoiling the radiant glories of their love and the rural idyll that they briefly construct. For whoever you are in Mac Laverty's Ulster—whether yahoo Prods burning down Cal's father's house, pale revolutionaries with 1916 in their holsters compelling Cal into the cause, or haunted priests unburdening their bleak sin-mindedness onto captivated children like Cal—you end up seeing through a glass darkly. For Marcella is the wife of the policeman in whose killing Cal assisted.

It's a lover's dilemma fraught with peculiarly Irish manifestations—no novel that I've read about the Ulster of our times seems so inward with the terrible plight of Northern Irishness as 'Cal' is. But it expands also into still more powerful fictional dimensions, with Cal and Marcella as characters with a Shake-spearian largeness of moral scope, the Romeo and Juliet de nos jours. In its tense amalgam of historical particulars and mythic universals 'Cal' achieves a formidable fictional triumph. Mac Laverty's second novel shows him a man to be watched.

Valentine Cunningham, "An Ulster Tragedy," in The Observer, January 16, 1983, p. 47.∗

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