GRACE NOTES
By Bernard MacLaverty
Norton. 277 pp. $23

Go to the first chapter of "Grace Notes"

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The Instruments of Her Salvation

By Ambrose Clancy
Sunday, October 5, 1997; Page X08
The Washington Post

Stephen Dedalus, before going into exile, tells a friend what is needed to achieve his ambition. "When the soul of a man is born in this country there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to fly by those nets." Bernard MacLaverty, the author of Cal, has titled his new novel Grace Notes but could just as easily have called it A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman.

MacLaverty's artist is Catherine McKenna, a composer born and raised in a small town in Northern Ireland who must navigate past the same nets today that Stephen fled in 1904. She, too, employs the strategy of silence, exile and cunning. But Catherine has more to overcome. She is a woman engaged in a man's world. And MacLaverty has given himself a problem Joyce never considered -- creating a portrait of an artist who is also a saint.

There have been other attempts by good writers at hagiography. Recent novels, not completely successful, include Ron Hansen's Mariette in Ecstasy and Oscar Hijuelos's Mr. Ives' Christmas, books beautifully written but ones that demand a leap of faith too large to make. The same can be said of Grace Notes.

A subtle, naturalistic stylist, MacLaverty is anything but deft in proclaiming Catherine heaven-bound without sin. The novel is saturated with, practically drowned in, religious images and emotions. A teacher, speaking with Catherine about Vermeer, says, "He turned to the ordinary -- elevated it. Made saints of you, me and the likes of us." Another mentor tells her that "music was a way of praying, music was a way of receiving God's grace." The Lives of the Saints is mentioned on occasion, particularly St. Cecilia, patron saint of music, and, in a rare display of wit in this humorless book, St. Gerard Majella, the patron saint of childbirth -- "how like the Catholic Church to appoint a man to the role . . ."

You are not allowed to miss the point. At a performance of her work, Catherine is described: "She has reached down into the tabernacle of herself for this music and feels something sacred in its performance." This takes place in, no surprise, an old church now refitted as a concert hall. Yet another teacher says, "A composer hears the thing in his or her head and writes it down." Well, yes. But here it seems not to be the creative process but Joan of Arc in the garden hearing things.

The plot is that Joycean creation of a soul, with an armature of a death and a birth to hang it on. Part one begins with Catherine coming home to Ireland to her estranged family, after five years' absence, for her father's funeral. MacLaverty is a gifted writer, with great control, beautiful rhythms to his prose, and insight. One of Catherine's compositions has been recently broadcast to 20 European countries, Ireland included, yet she has failed to notify her parents: "A girl who doesn't tell her parents of her success is more estranged than one who conceals her mistakes." The section ends with Catherine doing passive-aggressive battle with her mother and leaving, as she arrived, in tears.

Part two goes back a year in time, beginning with the birth of her daughter, Anna. The father is a lout who abuses Catherine and is finally carted off to dry out. He is weakly drawn, a plot device to provide a profane immaculate conception -- here and then gone for good, an afterthought. But the birth scenes are fine and real, with MacLaverty showing that the true mystery is not that everyone dies, but that everyone, somehow, is born. He is magician enough to make an infant a unique character and not just another stock baby. Grace Notes hits its peak with Catherine trying to raise her child, write music, and stay sane. On fragile emotional ground to begin with, Catherine, like many first-time mothers, is overwhelmed by motherhood. "She was like a juggler on a small board balanced on a fulcrum. The slightest carelessness could bring her down on one side or the other." And: "No one had told her of the regularity of a baby's crying. . . . Sometimes she did not trust herself, terrified that she would harm her baby in some way."

But the novelist's art doesn't save this book about the development of an artist. Catherine is cloyingly pure, and MacLaverty's sledgehammer notions about art as religion run from the quietly sentimental to the loudly shamanistic. This is a bad book by a good writer.

Ambrose Clancy, author of "Blind Pilot" and "The Night Line," lives in New York.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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