Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Cal by Bernard MacLaverty

Cal by Bernard MacLaverty

First published in the UK by Jonathan Cape in 1983.

I registered my copy of this book at BookCrossing

How I got this book:
Swapped for in the book exchange at Camping Didota, Oropesa

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Set in the Northern Ireland of the 1980s, Cal tells the story of a young Catholic man living in a Protestant area. For Cal, some choices are devastatingly simple: he can work in an abattoir that nauseates him or join the dole queue; he can brood on his past or plan a future with Marcella. Springing out of the fear and violence of Ulster, Cal is a haunting love story that unfolds in a land where tenderness and innocence can only flicker briefly in the dark.

Cal is the first book I think that I have read which so directly addresses the sectarian violence in 1980s Northern Ireland. I remember as an older child watching television news reports of IRA bombs and attacks, not understanding much of the reasons behind such atrocities and also not realising that, on English TV anyway, we were only generally shown half the story. At one point in Cal MacLaverty has his character wonder why Protestant activists are are called 'staunch' while their Catholic counterparts are 'fervent'. Two sides participating in equally violent and sadistic acts against each other, but described in evocative tones implying a sense of right and wrong with these words apportioned purely on the basis of authoritarian approval. Such is the power of language.

Cal, the man, isn't really much of anything and if he had lived somewhere peaceful no one would have bought MacLaverty's book, much less made it a classic school text. (I am glad I read it by choice rather than under obligation!) MacLaverty manages to show people on each side of the divide as both good and bad so I didn't feel him trying to sway me to either point of view. Instead he graphically portrays how easy it for people to slide into such a vicious stalemate, especially when they have little hope of any alternatives to lift them above their grievances. What makes Cal a fascinating protagonist is his world forcing his actions. Not a violent man and certainly, left to his own devices, not a murderer, in this society Cal cannot be his own man. Bravery is calculated by contributions to The Cause, not by standing apart. I was reminded of Good People by Nir Baram in that this novel also shows an everyman in an extreme situation and, as readers, we must ask ourselves how we would behave under such pressures.

Search Literary Flits for more:
Books by Bernard MacLaverty / Contemporary fiction / Books from Northern Ireland


  1. I have heard a lot about the past violence and also the present day violence which occurred/occurs in Northern Ireland, but I have never read about it or seen it addressed in a novel before. That really does make this one unique.

    1. I liked MacLaverty's rounded portrayal of the deep issues involved