Grace Notes

Grace Notes

by Bernard MacLaverty

The award-winning Grace Notes is a compact and altogether masterful portrait of a woman composer and the complex interplay between her life and her art. With superb artistry and startling intimacy, it brings us into the life of Catherine McKenna estranged daughter, vexed lover, new mother, and musician making her mark in a male-dominated field. It is a book that the Virginia Woolf of A Room of One's Own would instantly understand.

  • Language: English
  • Category: Fiction
  • Rating: 3.74
  • Pages: 288
  • Publish Date: November 17th 1998 by W. W. Norton Company
  • Isbn10: 0393318419
  • Isbn13: 9780393318418

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Catherine McKenna's, the protagonist of this novel, periods are mentioned once or twice during the course of the narrative. I hadn't realized that women had nose hairs until then. I'd never been able to connect with that piece (I'd even read a book about its creation and initial performance in a prisoner of war camp before I ever heard it), even though I'd listened to it several times. Reading Grace Notes, along with receiving a recent email from a good friend who recounted hearing the Messiaen piece playing in a hair salon (!) in his neighborhood, got me to listen again. This time, I was able to hear the music and connect with it.

The novel opens with Catherine McKenna returning to Northern Ireland for her father's funeral. She is the only child of a Catholic pub-owner, Brendan McKenna and his wife, who is referred to in the novel as "mother" by Catherine. The novel has several themes - Catherine's dysfunctional relationship with her parents, her inner life as a composer, and struggles in her personal life. My favorite sections of the book described her work in Kiev with a Russian composer and the end of the novel . It is perhaps understandable why Catherine experiences depression - her family, her country, her personal life, and her artistic struggles. Some sections of the book included details that helped illuminate the time and place and the people such as the wake of Catherine's father in their home, the old customs when a family member dies were still part of life in Northern Ireland at the time.

Unfortunately Catherines parents also share their conflicted relationship and throw in some Catholic angst. MacLaverty unfolds this wonderfully well, enough to keep you interested but not so much that you want to throw the book across the room. Overall this was an enjoyable book especially if you enjoy classical music.

Catherine obviously doesnt fit in with how things ought to be according to her mother and the old neighbors. the only one in the neighborhood who seems to understand her is her old music teacher, Miss Bingham. Miss Bingham has the ability to listen to Catherines music and understand what she is trying to do. We get an early warning, though, that there is something amiss with Catherine in the authors description of her as she was taking a nap in her parents house before the funeral: She woke, not howling, but with a noise in her throat trying to be howling. She seeks alternatives to replace this path to grace, and, initially, finds it in her music.

From whence the inspiration comes?

Grace notes in music are notes that embellish, but do not affect, the melody line. In the first, Catherine returns to her parents home to attend the funeral of her father. The first novella ends on a rather bleak note that one cannot return to ones childhood home. Dave, Annas alcoholic father, becomes increasingly abusive and violent, such that Catherine steals away with Anna to Glasgow, where they exist in marginal poverty while Catherine devotes herself to composing a piece commissioned by the BBC for a radio program of new artists and local music.

A woman composer who thinks in music and despair. It's a beautiful piece of work which I'd have enjoyed more if I was any musical.

Currently he is employed as a teacher of creative writing on a postgraduate course in prose fiction run by the Research Institute of Irish and Scottish Studies at the University of Aberdeen.