Walking the Dog - and other stories By Bernard MacLaverty
There is an expression that goes something like “there is no accounting of how complicated things can get, what with one thing leading to another.” This is how I felt when I thought to write a simple review about the marvelous short stories of Bernard MacLaverty. After reading his most recent book, Matters of Life & Death, I thought about how much I had enjoyed his writing, and that it had been too long since I had last read his work. Mr. MacLaverty has an ability to capture the moment and to put it on paper so that as you read you feel as if you are right there in the action. He writes the conversations and observations of everyday life. The first story in the new book reminded me of the very first story of his I had ever read - the title story in the collection Walking the Dog, published in 1994. The story Walking the Dog begins slowly. A man sets off on a walk with his dog - the same walk he has taken hundreds of times.
He observes the weather and his familiar surroundings. Suddenly, he is abducted by an IRA gunman, and in only nine short pages his life changes forever. The magic of the short story is, for me, that there is the brief, intense episode - in this case so brilliantly written - and there is also what is not written. There is the “what comes next?” for the reader to consider, to worry and wonder about.
So, I re-read the first collection and thought I’d do a little research about Mr. MacLaverty. I discovered that he was born in Belfast in 1942 and left Ireland, with is wife and children, in 1975 to escape the increasing violence. I also discovered, to my delight, that he had lived for eight years, working as a school teacher, on the Scottish island of Islay. I spent only a short time on Islay last fall, but fell in love with the place and I wanted to know what Mr. MacLaverty had written while he lived there.
It turns out he was quite prolific and wrote the novels Cal, and Lamb and set part of his novel, Grace Notes, on the island. All are very good, intensely written novels - I remember thinking as I read each one, what a great writer this man is.
I remembered that as soon as I finished Grace Notes I passed it on to a female friend who is a musician, because Mr. MacLaverty seemed to me, to have captured the creative force of his character, a female musician, in a way that I had never read or understood before. My friend agreed.
So, now I want to re-read Grace Notes and I have a feeling I will end up re-reading all of the books of Mr. MacLaverty over the next few months - as one thing leads to another.
Matters of Life & Death is again a short story collection. It begins with a very vivid and compelling picture of Belfast in the days of terror, in the early 1970s.
On the Roundabout is a short intense story about a short intense occurrence. While on a roundabout, the driver of a car, wife beside him, children in the back, witnesses a beating - his reaction is to know that if he doesn’t stop it, a man will be killed. He drives his car into the attackers, grabs the victim, pulls him into his own car, and rushes him off to hospital.
All in a flash, the driver thinks about the fact that the attackers know what his car looks like, could have recorded the registration number and he could become a victim of an IRA attack himself.
Such is life, still, in some parts of Ireland. You feel like you have been hit by a car yourself when you reach the end.
There are also some funny stories in this collection, and some sad. Mr. MacLaverty is now in his mid-sixties, so there is some reflection on reaching that age, with the experience of the aging mind and body.
When Mr. MacLaverty was asked about his life as a writer and about how he became a writer he replied, “It is a very hard question to answer - once you have put aside things like ‘earning a living’ and ‘you make your own hours’ or in my case ‘half hours’. Then I thought a little further - about why I choose to do this and came up with the following.
“It is in the nature of every child to play - unless hungry or sick - and when I was young I used to like playing farms - setting out the toy animals, ducks on a round mirror pond, and the farmer and his wife, maybe one day face to face, the next day with their backs to each other.”
Making up a world, moving people within it. Even commentating aloud about what the various people or animals are doing, as they do it.
Writing is perhaps the grown up version of this activity - a way of trying to make sense of a difficult world.”
I often describe short stories as a box of chocolates - there are the crème filled ones, the toffees, the nuts - I don’t always like them all, but I like the variety, and this particular mix, Matters of Life & Death is one of the very best.