Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 20, 2021

Grace Notes (1997), by Bernard MacLaverty

Cathy is hosting #ReadingIrelandMonth at 746 Books, so I hunted through the TBR and found Grace Notes, by Bernard MacLaverty (which had been lurking there since 2010).   MacLaverty was born in Belfast, but moved to Glasgow in 1975, and although Wikipedia summarises Grace Notes as a conflict between a desire for creativity and motherhood, I think it’s about more than that.  I think it’s also about a desire to escape an intractable conflict which soured every aspect of life in Northern Ireland.

The novel begins with Catherine’s return to Belfast for her father’s funeral after an estrangement of some years.  The novel predates the Good Friday Agreement (1998) and though on the bus home she watched the familiar landmarks she used as a child pass one by one, things are not the same in the town.

In the town itself she was surprised to see a Chinese restaurant and a new grey fortress of a police barracks. She stood, ready to get off at her stop.  There was something odd about the street.  She bent at the knees, crouched to look out at where she used to live.  It was hardly recognisable.  Shop-fronts were covered in hardboard, the Orange Hall and other buildings bristled with scaffolding.  Some roofs were covered in green tarpaulins, others were protected by lath and sheets of polythene.

‘What happened here?’ she asked the bus driver.

‘It got blew up.  A bomb in October.’

‘Was anybody hurt?’

‘They gave a warning.  The whole place is nothing but a shell.’

She stepped down onto the pavement and felt her knees shake.  A place of devastation. (pp.9-10)

Catherine has been living in Glasgow since winning a scholarship and deciding not to come home after graduating.  She has been living in safety while her family’s neighbourhood was bombed all around them, and she didn’t even know about it.  A vast gulf now separates her from her mother, who, not knowing anything about Catherine’s new life, achievements and responsibilities, is still entertaining hopes that her only child will stay home now.  But paradoxically, since it could be bombed at any time, ‘home’ is stasis, predictable, judgemental, rigid and under siege.  She grieves for her father despite his flaws; she wishes she could get on better with her mother but she no longer shares her faith nor her values.

In a tense and claustrophobic atmosphere, Part One of the novel traces the brief couple of days of mourning and the funeral, with Catherine trying hard not to react to irritations from her nagging mother, and trying also to work out when and how to tell her mother a piece of news she isn’t going to want to hear.

Part Two is the back story of Catherine’s joy in creating music, her doomed love affair with Dave on the island of Islay, and her triumph over post-natal depression which nearly ruined her career as a composer.  Anyone who loves music will be fascinated by the way MacLaverty describes the process by which fragments of music come together in Catherine’s imagination. The writing is beautiful, and the reader can almost hear the music from the descriptions.

But Catherine does not let her parents know that the inaugural performance of ‘Vernicles’ will be broadcast all over Britain and the EU because they would not understand.  Their world is circumscribed by the expectations that they have of a daughter, and they would think her music pretentious, difficult and strange.  Most of all, as Catholics, they would not like the way she has integrated the drumming of Orangemen into her composition…

The gulf between these parents and their child seems unbridgeable in much the same way that the sectarian conflict seemed intractable at that time in history.  My first thoughts were that this was a pessimistic ending, but on reflection perhaps there is hope for Catherine’s generation.

Grace Notes was nominated for the Booker Prize in 1997, and won the Saltire Society Literary Award for Scottish Book of the Year (1997).

Author: Bernard MacLaverty (b.1942)
Title: Grace Notes
Publisher: Vintage (Random House) 1998, first published 1997
ISBN: 9780099778011, pbk., 277 pages
Source: personal library, purchased from the Book Depository



  1. Well Lisa just reading that review resonated personally. As an inheritor of that complex heritage I know the complexities of that very painful history. He is a wonderful writer and am pleased he has found a writing place in my home town mother Glasgow.


    • Yes, and now there’s Brexit raking up all the problems all over again.
      (I thought of Brexit straightaway when I read that Catherine’s concert was funded by the EU for broadcast all over Europe, and I thought, where will young composers get the money from now? It costs a fortune to fund an orchestral performance and many compositions are never played because there’s no money for performing it.)


  2. This book has been recommended to me a LOT and despite owning a copy (in London) I am yet to read it. It does sound like something I would really like.


    • Yes, I think it’s your sort of book, Kim. Did you ever get to Northern Ireland when you were in the UK?


      • Yes, I spent my 30th birthday in Belfast and Derry. It was quite the night celebrating in a small pub where all the locals bought me drinks & the band sang Waltzing Matilda to me in tribute 🥳


  3. A wonderful review Lisa, this is not one I know, but there’s that theme again of those who left trying to navigate their way, to live their own life and try to connect with family they’ve left behind. When they grow apart in different soils, they’re no longer of the same species and the test is that return.

    I was just thus week looking at the creative funding available from the EU that is no longer able to be part of the mix of support for British-led initatives, a fact that will be the death of many potential creative projects.


    • Oh dear, I had a feeling that Brexit would impact badly on the arts. That’s terrible news.


      • It is, but on the other hand, it does create opportunity for partnership and collaboration, which would be a win win.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I do love McLaverty and wish he would write more! I remember loving this when it came out – he’s a very thoughtful writer.


  5. I’ve been meaning to read more by him for a while, so this is definitely on the list. Been researching my family’s history during this imposed home stay, and I’m pretty sure I’m related to Irish Laverys, possibly Belfast ones


    • I’d love to see what you think of this one…


  6. […] at ANZ Litlovers posted a lovely review of one of my favourites, Grace Notes by Bernard […]


  7. We had another of his books as a book club choice – Midwinter Break. There were a few things that didn’t quite work in the book but his ability to create memorable characters made me want to read more by him. This one sounds like a good choice.


    • I’ve got that one on my TBR too… I could read half a dozen Irish books for Irish reading Month and still have some left over:)


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