Review by Walter Cummins
Bernard MacLaverty’s latest story collection, his sixth, builds a thematic connection around its title story, “Blank Pages.” Frank, a writer, has been blocked since the death of his wife two years before. As a widower he is unable to create, with nothing to say on the sheets of A4 paper that he spreads over the floor of a room, seeing only tiny specks that move and turn out to be cat fleas. At one point in his writing career after the end of war, paper was so scarce that he coveted the backs of Christmas cards and exam books, any paper as an outlet for his prose. Now paper is abundant. Words—something to say—are what’s scarce at this point in his life. When Kathy, his wife, died, “She left things behind her—like her clothes. And the cat. And silence.”
Silence is the issue throughout these stories, not necessarily in a literal silence, but in the lack of something to say beyond the exchanges of empty conversation. People, even those who spend their lives together, don’t really communicate, can’t express thoughts and needs. In some of the stories, art and music become the outlet, messages that replace words. Throughout, the stories reveal the blank pages of human lives and, in some cases, quests for alternatives.
In “Wandering,” Vera is a would-be writer, a teacher awaiting retirement to work on a novel, unlike Frank, who is a professional with an agent and editors. But Vera does have a story accepted for publication in a local paper. Her mother, Lily, a failing old woman, once again has disappeared from their flat, the reason for Vera’s own wanderings on local streets. Back home with her mother found, as she tries to convey news of the story’s acceptance, Vera realizes her folly: “She was trying to have a literary conversation with a woman in her dotage.”
Earlier, as she searches through the streets, Vera imagines the lives of the people she sees, remembering Lily’s condemnation of nosiness as “having nothing to do with you.” But Lily responds in her thoughts that without curiosity there wouldn’t be any writing, no Anna Karenina, no Middlemarch.
That’s MacLaverty’s implicit call in this collection. Without the creativity of art, lives would offer no more than the emptiness of blank pages.
Death has a presence in several stories. People lost like Frank’s Kathy, those it will happen to soon, like Vera’s Lily, and actual corpses. In “Night Work,” a different Lily is asked to make a death mask of a significant man who has a house filled with books and art on the walls. The sculptor from whom she rents her room injured his foot and can’t walk to do it himself. This Lily, a lonely woman with no family, gets by working in a café, nothing but death in her future: “The whole evening had reminded her of how little time she had left.”
The alcoholic protagonist of “The Fairly Good Samaritan,” discovers the ajar flat door of the woman living on the floor below him, a woman he calls Mrs. Downstairs and barely tolerates as “a complete pain in the neck.” When he checks behind the open door, he discovers her unconscious on the floor and calls for an ambulance, then finds the bottle of Napoleon brandy she had kept for medicinal purposes, drinking it himself while he awaits assistance. When the barely breathing body of Mrs. Downstairs is carried out, an ambulance aide locks the door, and he, even drunker, climbs back to his own empty rooms.
One exception of time and place for the collection, not Ireland or Scotland, is “The End of Days” set in 1918 Vienna, imagining the dying of Egon Schiele’s pregnant wife, Edith, from Spanish flu. He asks if he can draw her as she lies in bed burning with fever. “Sometimes the line is like the human voice. It sings. Variations and complexities. And the line gives back just as the voice does. It reveals.”
Helpless before her dying, the blood on the pillow, unable to cry, Egon brings drawing materials from his studio and asks, “Forgive me,” as he draws her in death, loving “the infallibility of his line,” consumed by his art. But when he finishes, he feels what he had done was wrong. He stuffs the drawings into the flames of the stove, one by one, each a “conflagration, a flaring as it reduced each page to blackness.”
Art, in this case music, succeeds in “Sounds and Sweet Airs,” uniting passengers on a ferry crossing choppy water in a storm. Sean and Grace, an older couple, initially taking excessive space at a table to keep others at a distance. But eventually they begin a conversation with a young woman, Lisa, curious about the harp she is bringing with her. It turns out she is a professional musician, traveling to play for her father who has been paralyzed by a work accident.
The couple convince Lisa to play for them, eventually gathering a large, appreciative audience of travelers to listen as the storm ends. Lisa enjoys performing. “I’m not nervous about playing . . . But talking gives me the heebie-jeebies. I’ll play all night—just as long as I don’t have to say anything.”
Her playing binds a group of strangers, transforming them into a community, filling blank pages with sound in lieu of words, art initiated by the curiosity of Sean and Grace who chose not to keep their distance.