Monday, August 4, 2008

Moving from one element to another (The Anatomy School by Bernard MacLaverty)

Martin Brennan is what is known as a "late bloomer." In his last year of high school in Northern Ireland, he sits dutifully with his widowed mother's weekly dinner guests - two other solitary women and a priest.

'Who's talking about slang? It's the cursing I'm talking about. Giving everybody within earshot dog's abuse. Unadulterated effs and c's. If you'll pardon my French, Father - being so blunt. And, God above, it's not just pubs. It would curl the hair of your head to pass a primary school getting out these days.'

'Martin - you wouldn't say things like that, would you?'


'God bless us and save us! He certainly would not - over my dead body.' said Mrs Brennan. 'I just love the innocence of wee children. Isn't it the terrible pity they have to grow up?'

'It is - but that's the way the Lord has planned it. They can't remain in ignorance for ever.' Father Farquhason seemed very definite. He bit decisively into his sandwich.

'Ignorance is innocence,' said Martin's mother. 'And it's lovely to see it. That's what I always say.'

'It's not a philosophy you hear seriously espoused these days.' Father Farquharson began to suck at something which had caught between his teeth.

'Indeed Father, I would go so far as to say that it applies not just to - you know what - but to things like doctoring and what have you,' said Mrs Brennan. 'If I have cancer I'd prefer not to know. You're bettter not knowing a thing about it. That's my theory.'

'A little knowledge is a dangerous thing,' said Mary Lawless. 'A doctor told me once what was wrong with my ear and he might as well have whistled "Blue Suede Shoes."'

It is the departure of Martin's innocence in matters academic, moral, spiritual, and sexual that we witness over the course of Bernard MacLaverty's The Anatomy School, as Martin makes his way from adolescence to adulthood. There are a few scenes of gripping suspense but I won't describe them because it will spoil the plot for you. MacLaverty is wonderful with dialogue scenes - he has an expert ear for the dialogue of witty teenage boys. And I laughed out loud at some of the scenes among the tea guests:

'You're never going to believe this.' said Mary Lawless. 'but - I had a twenty-inch waist the day I was married.'

'You had an elastic measuring tape, as well, if you ask me,' said Nurse Gilliliand. Father Farquharson turned in his straight-backed armchair and watched each person as they spoke. He had a face which was always on the verge of smiling.

Mary Lawless insisted, 'No, I had really - twenty inches.' She created a circle joining he thumbs and index fingers together to demonstrate her size. 'That's twenty inches.' Martin was going to set the plate of buns on the coffee table but his mother made a gesture that he should insist.

'Very like a whale in a wee tin.' said Mrs Brennan. 'You took the sausage rolls.'

'Sometimes I eats like a horse and sometimes I just eats grass. My hunger is now assuaged.'

Martin set the plate down.

'All the more for me tomorrow,' he said.

'Ate up, you're a growing boy,' said Mary Lawless. 'It's hard to believe I used to have an hourglass figure.'

'Aye - always running out,' said Nurse Gilliland.

Mary Lawless joined in the joke then said, 'Fruit is said to be a very good thing.'

'An apple a day keeps the doctor at bay,' said Mrs Brennan.

'I find apples an uphill struggle.'

'Aye, I know what you mean,' Nurse Gilliland nodded. 'It's hard to make a meal of an apple - like you wouldn't get a man coming home from the pub starving and then sitting down to an apple. Dieting also can do strange things to the breath.'

'Are you trying to tell me nicely...?'

'No, I am not, Mary. It's just that I was talking to Peter Faul the other day. He's badly failed.'

'A sight for sore eyes.'

'Is he no better?'

'Naw. Not by a long chalk.'

'As yella as a duck's foot.'

'Aye, they say he's not well at all.'

'The doctors have given up on him.'

'Is that so? But sure the doctors give up on everybody.'

'Merciful hour.'

'There's something odd about his face.'

'Aye - like somebody sat on him when he was warm.'

Adolescence is a time when much is expected of you but for many, like Martin, the world won't shed all its mysteries, and so he's left out of understanding why it is one has to perform all of these tasks - chores at home, spending time with people who you would rather not see, explaining what happened in your day, hours and hours of grueling homework, passing exams. Often Martin is even a mystery to himself. Although some of his peers seem quite decided on what they will do with the rest of their lives, that question is an utter mystery to Martin. I found the chief pleasures of this book, aside from the humor, to be quiet ones - especially the detailed writing evoking Martin's inner experience - as he goes on his sometimes painful, sometimes funny march from innocence to experience and the adult world sheds its mysteries.

'Hey it's nearly warm.' Martin dried his hand on the side of his trousers and lit a cigarette. He spun the match toward the water. He loved the tang of the smell of the sulphur. He lay down. There was also something in the grass which smelled good - a plant of some sort, like pineapple weed or meadowsweet or something. He looked around and the grass was close to his face. He closed one eye. Some of the blades were veined green, others were stalks - mixed new summer grass which slanted this way and that, creating a pattern that was perfect, with the sky behind it. The blades fitted the sky the way a key fits a lock. Grass green and sky blue. Those were the colours - they were what was being referred to. Adjectives and nouns. Grass and sky, green and blue. The sun was warm on the black material of his blazer. He inhaled his cigarette and felt a jag of pleasure, in his lungs, between his fingers. For a moment his head felt light. Everything combines to give him a rush of intensity at the rightness of things. The key turned in the lock. The liquid went clear with the addition of a single drop. Everything else he thought of only added to the feeling. The water at the edge of the lake was warm and silky on his fingers. His best friends were here, he was sure he would pass his exams this time. He identified the upward rush as happiness. He was sure he would never die. And he was sure he would remember feeling this for the rest of his life. It was like the feeling he'd had in Ardglass when he decided not to be a priest. He wondered if it had anything to do with lying down. Then, he'd lain on a wall, now he was on the grass. He knew it was a daft conclusion - like the kid who thought the wind was created by the waving of trees - but it was funny and the fact that he thought it was funny only added to the rightness of things. Suddenly there was the sound of swans lifting and flying overhead. Moving from one stretch of water to another. The sound of moving from one element to another. The stone falling from air to water. The swans from here to there. Love was in it somewhere but he couldn't tell where or with whom.

That's the book in a paragraph, moving from one element to another. This is the second of MacLaverty's books I have read this summer - the other was Grace Notes. He seems to exist below the radar in the U.S. (or had been below mine at any rate) but his outlook is humane and his writing a true pleasure so I hope many others will discover him. John Self has recommended his Lamb and Cal, so those are now added to my list. Here is my other post on The Anatomy School and here is the author's website.


Anonymous said...

You beat me to it, Ted! I'm pleased you liked this one; I look forward to reading it myself once I get my Booker Prize list over with.

MacLaverty is pretty much under the radar here in the UK too: however his debut Lamb was on my English Literature course in school 20 years ago, which is how I first came across him.

Anonymous said...

This one is definitely on my list - glad you are enjoying it.

Ted said...

John - I'm so glad you introduced me to him. Really a marvelous, detailed and dark story teller. Damon Galgut is now on my list, thanks to you, as well. I'm looking forward to hearing your reaction to some on the Booker list, I've enjoyed Ghosh before.

Verbivore - I think you will really appreciate MacLaverty, try Grace Notes, as well.

Anonymous said...

This sounds like a great read - I am adding it to my wish list. Thanks for the review.