Blank Pages and Other Stories by Bernard MacLaverty review – thrilling and cathartic

After the mighty success of his 2017 novel, Midwinter Break, the Irish writer Bernard MacLaverty has returned with a new collection of short stories, his first since 2006’s Matters of Life & Death. Admirers may feel that they know what to expect: beautifully written vignettes of love, Irishness and loss. What is striking about these dozen stories is how MacLaverty, 78, deals with the theme of encroaching mortality. Virtually every one features death and decay in some form, whether implicitly or explicitly, giving a profundity to tales that might otherwise feel less weighty than some of his earlier work.

Four of the stories are set in the past, from County Derry in 1972 to Vienna in 1918 in The End of Days, the most affecting work in the collection. Here, MacLaverty finds an original parallel with our Covid-riddled world in his deeply poignant depiction of the slow demise of the painter Egon Schiele and his wife Edith from the Spanish flu epidemic. Avoiding sentimentality and cheap emotional release, the tale ends in cathartic, even thrilling fashion.

Elsewhere, there is an understated sadness in the title story, about a lonely widower’s relationship with his cat, which gradually comes to assume almost the same significance for him as his late wife, while The Dust Gatherer offers a rich evocation of adolescence complicated by romance and the more unexpected appearance of an old piano.

The motifs may be decrepitude, decay and a slow march towards the inevitable, but there is also wry humour to be found throughout Blank Pages, an acknowledgment that death is no different whined about than withstood. This fine collection reaffirms MacLaverty’s place among the greatest short story writers of his generation.

Blank Pages and Other Stories by Bernard MacLaverty is published by Jonathan Cape (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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