Saturday, August 23, 2008

Man and Boy On the Lam (Books - Lamb by Bernard MacLaverty)

My Bernard MacLaverty summer read-a-thon has concluded with his novella, Lamb. It's a beautiful but devastating little book. Brother Sebastian has given his life to the church, teaching in a school for poor, wayward boys. The home is run by a draconian headmaster, Brother Benedict, who does not approve of Brother Sebastian's sympathetic approach to the boys, and to one boy in particular - Owen Kane.
'I admire your text-book ideallism, Brother Sebastian, but I have rarely seen it work. You are being influenced by the tenderness of his years. Do you believe in the Church, Brother?'

'Yes.'

'Then you must believe that if a boy is old enough to receive communion he is old enough to break the law, to cause suffering in others.'

'But if they do not fully realize what they are doing...'

'Diminished responsibility, Brother, can only be claimed for babies, idiots and nuns.' He rose from his chair as if the meeting was at an end. The full skirt of his soutane blocked out the blaze of the fire.

'What we run here, Brother, is a finishing school for the sons of the Idle Poor.'

'It finishes them all right.'

Brother Benedict stopped in mid-flight, his eyebrows raised in mock pleasure.

'Ah. A witticism. You are not totally lost yet, Brother. I'll thank you not to interrupt me again. What we run here is a school for the sons of the Idle Poor. We teach them to conform, how to make their beds, how to hold a knife and fork, and the three Rs. We shoehorn them back into society at an age when, if they commit another offence, they go to the grown-up prison. If they do not conform we thrash them. We teach them a little of God and a lot of fear. It is a combination that seems to work. At least we think so. There is no room here for your soft-centred, self-centred idealism.'

'Your problem, Brother Sebastian, is that you can't think. In all your time here I do not think I have heard you make a rational statement.'
**SPOILER ALERT**
But Brother Sebastian is not a conformist himself and, having the grief for his recently deceased father fresh in his heart, decides that Owen would be better off with the love of a father-like figure than with the harsh cruelties inflicted upon him by the home. What follows is a sweet extended short story of man and boy on the run. Icarus figures prominently as a motif, so it will come as no surprise that the story is a tragedy. The problem is really a failure of imagination, in some ways Brother Benedict is sadly right in his assessment of Brother Sebastian, whose real name is Michael Lamb. He can't think. Or to be more precise, he thinks with his heart rather than his head and either his personality or his education or his grief-stricken state, leave him without much imagination. **SPOILER OVER** One wishes that our hero was as resourceful as he is loving. The writing, as is ever the case with MacLaverty, is precisely observed, emotionally insightful, and simply told. Of the four books of his I read this summer, I would not call this one my favorite - that honor would go to Cal, but I am so glad that John Self introduced me to his beautiful writing and hope more lovers of good books discover him.

3 comments:

JCR said...

Skipped the spoiler part... interesting book... will definitely pick it up next time I am out. How've you been?
JCR

Ted said...

JCR - Hope you can find it. I could only find used and library copies, I believe it may be out of print. I've been good. Classes start up this wednesday so I am have been storing up on reading fiction, seeing friends, and trying to get everything set up in the lab before the madness begins! And you? When do classes start up?

Anonymous said...

"The problem is really a failure of imagination, in some ways Brother Benedict is sadly right in his assessment of Brother Sebastian, whose real name is Michael Lamb. He can't think. Or to be more precise, he thinks with his heart rather than his head and either his personality or his education or his grief-stricken state, leave him without much imagination." !Well put