Cover image for The anatomy school
The anatomy school
MacLaverty, Bernard.
Personal Author:
First American edition.
Publication Information:
New York : W.W. Norton, 2002.

Physical Description:
354 pages ; 24 cm

Format :


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Material Type
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X Adult Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Set In Belfast in the lat esixties, Bernard MacLaverty's latest novel takes us into Martin Brennan's final semester of high school, whn he finds old friendships tested and is forced to face the unknown future. Before he can become an adult, Martin must unravel the sacred and contradictory mysteries of religion, science, and sex; he must learn the value of friendship; but most of all he must pass his exam--at any cost. With characteristic "wise humor" (Publishers Weely), MacLaverty "moves beyond the cloistered realm of school to capture the rhythms and pressures of provincial life, as well as Martin's desire to overcome them." (Denver Post). This absorbig, often funny novel "turns high anxieties and pain into well wrought fiction. MacLaverty has a wider vision, greater depth and technical crft than J. D. Salinger, a more subtle style than William Goldign and a moral imagination to match that of James Joyce" ( Toronto Globe and Mail).

Author Notes

Bernard MacLaverty lives in Glasgow.

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

Poor Martin Brennan has to contend with a variety of indignities: an overbearing mother who dreams of her son entering the priesthood, the pressures of passing his school exams (after an unsuccessful first attempt), and the ordinary turbulence of late adolescence. Shy and unsure of himself, Martin carefully navigates his world with the help (and sometimes hindrance) of his best friends: Kavanaugh, a smooth-talking charmer; and the rebellious Blaise Foley, who challenges Martin's precepts of authority and faith. Martin, a photographer for his school newspaper, studiously observes and absorbs his surroundings, from the impoverished lifestyle he and his mother must endure to the twittering ladies and pompous priest who frequent the Brennans' dinner table. As Martin struggles with his relationships, classes, and first foray into romance, he moves slowly into manhood, readjusting his worldview. MacLaverty, whose work has previously been short-listed for the Booker Prize, writes with an easy charm and perfectly captures life in 1960s Belfast. He invests the smallest characters with great wit and humanity, creating a moving, rueful tale. --Brendan Dowling

Publisher's Weekly Review

MacLaverty transforms the generic coming-of-age formula into a revelatory albeit lengthy read in his latest, the story of an insecure, thoughtful teenager named Martin Brennan who must survive the rigors of a pivotal year in high school while growing up in Belfast during the Troubles of the late '60s. Martin starts off in a bit of an academic quandary, having lost his scholarship to the Catholic school he attends because of subpar grades, forcing his mother to pay for the rest of the year and putting considerable pressure on the boy to boost his academic performance. Much of what follows is a low-key morality play in which Brendan and his mates go through various machinations to procure the answers to their upcoming exams, only to watch their theft backfire when the school thinks they're circulating pornographic photos and one of Martin's chums gets roughed up as a result. Brennan's sexual initiation is poignantly portrayed as he lands a job at a university anatomy lab and ends up losing his virginity there with a comely Australian minx whose departure sets Martin up to pursue the girl of his dreams. Martin is a memorable character whose unflinching compassion and capacity for self-examination provide a rock-solid foundation, and MacLaverty balances the boy's seriousness with his own wise humor. He also creates a fine cast of secondary characters to bring Martin's rites of passage to life, and the result is a book that delves deeper than usual into the vagaries of teenage emotions. MacLaverty has been down this road before (Cal), and all too often the reader can predict the next scene in the narrative, but despite the familiarity of the journey, he provides plenty of atmospheric background to make this heartfelt story worth the ride. (Mar.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



1.A Weekend Retreat His mother came into the bedroom carrying an empty suitcase and whacked the curtains open. 'It's time, Martin,' she said. Martin moaned and got out of bed. There was white frost on the window. He scratched the pane to see if it was inside or out. His fingernail left a clear track. 'How many nights?' 'Three.' She counted them off on her fingers and mouthed the days as she did so. 'Why do they have Retreats at this time of the year? So many days off school, coming up to exams?' His mother was folding the right number of drawers and socks, fussing backwards and forwards from the dressing table to the bed where the suitcase now lay open. 'Exams aren't for a couple of months.' His voice was still thick with sleep. She was always doing that -- exaggerating -- trying to prove her own arguments. She could stretch time whichever way she wanted. If he lay in his bed until 10 .30 it became 'sleeping in till midday 'and if he came home at 11 .30 after a night out it became 'streeling in here at one o'clock in the morning'. 'That's when you should be doing all the work,' she said. 'Before the exams. There's not much point in studying afterwards.' She folded a shirt so that the arms disappeared. She threw him a pair of clean underpants. 'Don't be such a Slitherum Dick. Do something. Get dressed.' He hesitated. 'I'll not be looking at you.' He turned his back to her and changed out of his pyjama trousers. 'I always say there's no point in standing around with your mouth hanging open.' He sat on the bedside chair to put his shoes and socks on. 'And be careful with this case. It was more than good of Nurse Gilliland. I don't want to be returning something in tatters.' When he was dressed he went downstairs to the kitchen. She shouted after him, 'That battery is on its last legs.' It was still fairly dark so he lifted the torch from the kitchen cup-hook and went out into the yard. He walked carefully with his feet wide apart for fear of slipping. The ice underfoot made a sound like static when he pressed down. His breath clouded the cold air. He went into the toilet and bolted the door. It smelled of damp and cobwebs and bowels. The torch shone a pale milky circle on the whitewashed wall. He set it on the bench so that it lit the ceiling, and by reflection, faintly, the whole place. He took down his trousers and clean underpants and slid on to the bench over the hole. The wood was worn smooth. An icy draught came up from the darkness. The toilet paper was semi-transparent and written across the bottom of each sheet in green letters were the words MEDICATED WITH IZAL GERMICIDE. When he went back into the kitchen she was making up a piece for him. He went to the kitchen sink and turned on the tap. 'Wash your hands,' she said. He sighed. 'When it comes to hygiene we have to be more careful than people who have the proper facilities.' He nodded in an exaggerated fashion. 'What are they?' 'Salad.' 'With salad cream?' 'Of course.' He dried his hands on the roller towel on the back of the door. 'There's tea in the pot,' she said. 'I don't think I have time.' 'Your case is in the hall.' She cracked a hard boiled egg against the bread board. Lots of small taps, so that the shell cracked all over. She began peeling back the crazy paving of shell showing the slippery white underneath. 'How long is this going to take?' 'Not long.' She moved to the sink and held the peeled egg under running water. 'There's nothing worse than getting a bit of shell -- when you bite into it. Like sand at the seaside.' From the cutlery drawer she produced a thing for cutting up eggs -- like a little lyre. She laid the egg in an oval depression and hinged the metal strings down on top of it. The egg fell into slices, each with a yellow circle of yolk at its centre. 'Come on, they're not for Father Farquharson.' 'Less of your cheek, Martin Brennan.' 'I'm gonna be late for school.' 'You should never mock the clergy.' 'It's the clergy who'll thump me if I'm late.' 'Especially somebody as good as Father Farquharson. He's a living saint.' 'Aye.' 'But not aloof,' said Mrs Brennan. 'He's ordinary at the same time.' 'You can say that again.' 'Martin, you 're a big man but a wee coat fits you. I feel like throwing these sandwiches in the bin. You 're about as grateful as...What notion have you taken against Father Farquharson?' 'It's a few sandwiches for lunch time -- not one of your supper nights.' 'You should be eternally grateful to the same Father Farquharson. It 's not every house in the parish he visits. And it 's not the high and mighty up the Somerton Road. No, it 's here -- our house. Even though we don 't have the proper facilities. You should go down on your knees to a man like that.' Martin rolled his eyes and willed her to finish making the sandwiches. 'It's a sign of respect for your father, God rest him. If there was anything to be done your father would always be the first to volunteer. Who'll we get to pass the collection plate on Sundays? Your father. Who'll do the digging and keep the graveyard tidy? Your father. He was in the St Vincent de Paul and the Knights of Columbanus and God knows what else. He never told me the half of it. And the Legion of Mary. All I can manage the time for is the Ladies of Charity -- but that 's me. I'm selfish. I 'm like you -- always on the lookout for number one.' 'Father Farquharson's a bit ...'Martin searched for a word that wouldn't be rude,'...boring.' 'Very well.' His mother spoke in a clipped I've-nothing-more- to-say-to-you voice. She put the top on the sandwich and sliced it into four triangles. 'Crusts on or off?' 'The way they are.' She took the waxed paper from around the loaf and folded up the sandwiches. 'Just because your mother chooses to do things a little better than anybody else ...'The queen of the unfinished sentence. 'But that doesn't suit the likes of our Martin. Oh no, he'd prefer to scorn things that are just that wee bit better ...Mary Lawless doesn't stand up for you any more. She used to worship the ground you walked on. And Nurse Gilliland says you 're a changed boy. Being seventeen doesn't suit you.' 'I thought you liked change,' he said. 'What do you mean?' 'The furniture.' 'I like improvements .Not quite the same thing. 'Occasionally, when he was a child Martin would come down the stairs in the morning to find that his mother had moved all the furniture. The table would be under the kitchen window, instead of at the wall; the sideboard would be moved to the other wall; the china cabinet would be brought in from the parlour; the armchairs switched to different sides of the fireplace. She would be standing there waiting, watching his face. 'Well?' He knew if he said he liked it better the way it was, she would be hurt. He thought the reason she did this was because they hadn't enough money to buy new furniture so she just moved the old stuff around. After a lukewarm reaction she'd fold her arms and say, 'I think it 's a complete transformation.' She handed him the parcel of sandwiches and he picked up the suitcase from the hall and ran. 'Say one for me,' she called after him. At lunch time Martin sat in the hired bus eating his sandwiches, hoping nobody would sit beside him. It was at the top of the school drive and guys who were not going on the Retreat milled around it, making faces, giving 'up ya 'signs to the ones inside. Kavanagh was one of them and he gave Martin a look which said -- more or less -- you poor religious bastard I hope you enjoy yourself but I've better things to be doing. Kavanagh's mate, Brian Sweeny, was there too, just lounging up against the wall, his hands in his pockets. There was a lot of interest in the driver because he was an outsider. He sat high in his cab, smoking, wisecracking with the boys in the driveway. The boy who eventually sat down beside him was called Eddie Downie -- Martin didn't know him well, not well enough to joke anyway. If Kavanagh wasn't there it didn't matter who sat beside him. The bus drove along the twisted, narrow roads of County Down towards Ardglass and the boys sang Republican songs. A boy called Sharkey knew all the words and shouted them out in advance. 'Up went Nelson in old Dublin.' In Ireland things had hardly happened before there was a song about it. Everybody swayed in unison at every corner. Near Downpatrick one guy broke ranks and stuck his chalk white face out the window. Everybody cheered. He puked what was discovered, when they arrived at the Retreat house, to be an almost horizontal line along the side of the bus. Martin took a couple of photographs of it to show Kavanagh. When he and Eddie Downie examined it they could see it was definitely breakfast in origin. The Retreat House was on top of a hill. Gardens sloped down to a high stone wall. There were daffodils and things growing in its shelter. A hawthorn tree had white blossom and some of it was swirling off and mixing with the fine snow which was blowing from the north. Beyond the wall, the town of Ardglass fell away to the sea. The boys all stood about shivering, waiting for the driver to unload their bags from the hold. The horizon was grey, barely distinguishable from the sky as the snow shower passed. The sound of crows mixed with the sound of seagulls. Inside, the place was huge -- like a castle. The boys carried their cases up a polished wooden staircase to the dormitories. The stomping and banging and creaking was deafening. The whole place smelled of Mansion polish. A Redemptorist stood in the hallway, his hands thrust into the opposing sleeves of his soutane. He was tubby and wore a biretta on the top of his head. He had heavy horn-rimmed glasses. 'Make the noise now, boys,' he shouted at the top of his voice. Then chuckled to Martin as he passed: 'For there'll be precious little of it later.' 'Excuse me, Father. Is it OK if I take photos? I'm supposed to be doing an article for the school magazine.' 'Click away. Click away, boy. What 's your name?' 'Martin Brennan.' 'Good man yourself.' It was hardly worthy of praise -- the fact that he had a name. Why did he always have to ask permission to do things? What kind of a crawler was he? Do I dare to eat a peach? Do I dare disturb the universe? Anybody else would just go ahead. Wee Jacky had done T.S. Eliot's poem with them. Said it was modern poetry -- talked about Eliot 's quest for the spiritual. But Kavanagh had whispered that the poet 's name was an anagram of TOILETS and the whole thing ended in a terrible fit of the giggles. Martin climbed the stairs with his teeth clenched. Suddenly from below he heard the dark and unmistakable voice of Condor -- Father O'Malley -- the school's Dean of Discipline. He had addressed them in the school chapel before they left. 'I cannot believe I am having to say this --but last Easter the behaviour of adult boys from this school on Retreat was so bad that this year I have been invited to attend. I will be there -- like a fire alarm -- just in case. That should make each and every one of you feel thoroughly ashamed. That young men capable of becoming priests should need such supervision. 'Then he had driven himself to Ardglass in his black Volkswagen. Now, once his voice had been heard, all the chattering and laughing died away but the creaking of the wooden stairs went on as the boys moved up and down. From the Hardcover edition. Excerpted from The Anatomy School by Bernard Maclaverty All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.