Blank Pages by Bernard MacLaverty – stories from the far end of life

Bernard MacLaverty has never rushed into print: his first novel, Lamb (1980) – a sharp tragedy with an indelible ending – was published when he was 38, with four further novels across four decades. Collections of stories have been a little more frequent – this is his sixth – but even then he keeps his powder dry: rarely among modern collections, none of the 12 stories in Blank Pages has been published elsewhere before.

The care and deliberation show. MacLaverty’s method might be summed up in the name of the Australian wollemi pine (here in the story “Glasshouses”), from an Aboriginal word meaning “look around you, keep your eyes open and watch out”. He is a matchless observer of human details both trivial – the trickiness of trimming the nails on your right hand – and significant, as when a beloved pet’s final trip to the vet is followed by the simple, weighted line: “He opened the door and set the empty cat basket in the hallway.”

We observe what surrounds us, and MacLaverty now is writing about people at the far end of life: widows, widowers, mothers with dementia. In the title story, on a writer grieving for his wife, who takes little pleasure now in his work, the blank pages that face him represent the days that will sit in silence for the remainder of his time.

And death stalks the longest story, “End of Days”, about the decline of Egon Schiele and his wife in the 1918 flu pandemic. It’s a strong tale of love “without limit, beyond measurement”, as the artist tends to his wife knowing she is probably infecting him. Its position in the centre of the collection gives it the feel of a set piece, but it sits oddly among the other stories, whose Northern Irish and Scots settings create a self-contained world (complete with flavourful Ulsterisms such as “ramstam” and “pamphrey”).

MacLaverty’s stark novels Lamb and Cal gave way to more capacious work – Grace Notes, Midwinter Break – and these late stories show similar amplitude. There’s nothing here with the spare force of, say, his early story “Secrets” – a triple-decker novel in nine pages. Now MacLaverty prefers to keep the reader company rather than leaving them to their own devices, but the result is no less satisfying. In “Wandering”, a character reflects that in great literature, “these electric-light fragments of other people’s lives underlined how depressingly alike we all were”. Or, you might prefer, reassuringly.

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