Northern Exposure is my monthly series where I look at literature from Northern Ireland. I have three books by Northern Irish writers in my 20 Books of Summer stack and the first one up is Secrets and Other Stories by Bernard MacLaverty.
Secrets and Other Stories is Bernard MacLaverty’s first short story collection, originally published in 1977. Hailed, rightly, for his few but wonderful novels, MacLaverty’s short stories tend to fly under the radar, not getting the attention they deserve.
Secrets was MacLaverty’s first published work and in some ways it shows. When I say that these are short stories, I mean they are short. In some cases, three pages with none reaching double figures. Where his acclaimed early novels, Cal and Lamb feature strong, driving narratives with violent conclusions, these stories have more of a Midwinter Break feel about them. They are subtle, more delicate affairs, at times impressionistic in their telling.
Some of the stories suffer for this – never emerging beyond a sketch, yet others show that even with an economy of words, an entire world can be created in the hands of the right author.
The theme of the collection is, as you would imagine, the keeping and discovery of secrets. Featuring a range of relationships – married couples and male friends, lonely alcoholics and lost boys – everyone here is trying to conceal or reveal secrets of all shapes and sizes.
All the stories explore small moments of private epiphanies, where an ordinary life is momentarily sparked alight by memory, desire or regret. Regret plays a large part in these stories, from drunkards looking for happiness at the bottom of a bottle, an unmarried schoolteacher taking a holiday to get over the death of his beloved mother and a maiden aunt, whose youthful love exists only on the worn pages of tattered letters.
In Umberto Verdi, Chimney Sweep, a lonely housewife is reminded of what her life could have been when she hires an Italian chimney sweep, while in The Bull with the Hard Hat, a travelling salesman with 8 children imagines an affair with the office secretary while on his lunch break.
Some secrets bring brief happiness – in A Pornographer Woos, a man seduces his wife in front of his children and mother-in-law by way of a secret note. In A Present for Christmas a destitute alcoholic is running out of money, is about to be barred from his local pub and evicted from his flat, but receives some unexpected good luck when his alcohol purchases get mixed up with someone else’s.
The most successful stories in this collection attend to bigger events and deeper betrayals. In the title story, a man attends the funeral of an aunt who once lived with him and remembers a moment of childhood curiosity that changed their loving relationship forever. This is a beautifully structured story, imbued with a sense of regret and pain and ending without resolution.
In the stand out Between Two Shores, a man who works in London is travelling home on the ferry to Northern Ireland to see his family for Christmas. His joy at seeing his wife and children again is punctured by the knowledge that it is all about to come to an end. An affair with a nurse in London has left him with a sexually transmitted disease and once the ferry docks, he will have to face the reality of what he has done.
Hugo is a skilfully crafted tale of a man looking back on a friendship he had in his childhood. Hugo was a lodger in his mother’s house and their shared love of literature and James Joyce in particular bonds them together. Hugo trusts the boy to read the novel he has written and in later years, when the it emerges that Hugo has committed suicide, the man can only wonder if his honest response to reading the book played a part in Hugo’s death.
Not all the stories here are successful – many feel like drafts of something more substantial but what emerges from the collection as a whole is MacLaverty’s sensitivity to character and the accuracy of eye in even the slightest of sketches. He is adept at bringing his characters to life in only a few pages and in creating a grounded sense of place. The stories have a wry, self-deprecating humour and yet are both wise and elegant.
Secrets and Other Stories gets right to the heart of existence, exploring the hidden emotions that drive so much of human behaviour.
Read on: Book
Number Read: 222
Number Remaining: 524
20 Books of Summer: 3/20
About the Author:
Bernard MacLaverty was born in Belfast in 1942, and moved to Scotland in 1975, where he lived in Edinburgh, on the Isle of Islay, and now in Glasgow.
After leaving school he became a Medical Laboratory Technician, later studying at Queen’s University, Belfast and becoming an English teacher.
He has been writer in residence at at the University of Aberdeen, and Guest Writer at the University of Augsburg and at Iowa State University. For three years, he was visiting writer at John Moores University, Liverpool, and is currently visiting Professor at the University of Strathclyde. He is a member of Aosdana.
He is the author of the novels Lamb (1980); Cal (1983); Grace Notes (1997); and The Anatomy School (2001), set in Belfast in the late 1960s. Both Lamb and Cal have been made into major films for which he wrote the screenplays, and he has written various versions of his fiction for radio, television and screen. Grace Notes was awarded the 1997 Saltire Society Scottish Book of the Year Award and shortlisted for many other major prizes, including the Booker Prize for Fiction and the Whitbread Novel Award.
His books of short stories are Secrets & Other Stories (1977); A Time to Dance & Other Stories (1982); The Great Profundo & Other Stories (1987); Walking the Dog & Other Stories (1994), Matters of Life & Death (2006) and most recently published his Collected Stories (2013).
In 2003, he wrote and directed a short film, Bye-Child, after a poem by Seamus Heaney, which was nominated for a BAFTA (Best Short Film Award) and won a BAFTA Scotland (Best First Director Award).
His most recent novel Midwinter Break was published in 2017. A Guardian / Sunday Times / Irish Times / Herald Scotland / Mail on Sunday Book of the Year, it also won the Bord Gáis Novel of the Year at the Irish Book Awards.
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!