The Anatomy School
A coming-of-age story of a northern Irish boy getting out from under the thumb of mother, church, and country.
Set in Belfast in the late sixties, Bernard MacLaverty's new novel takes us into Martin Brennan's last semester of high school, when he finds old friendships tested and is forced to face the unknown. 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 exams—at any cost. Celebrating the desire to speak and the need to say nothing, The Anatomy School moves from the enforced silence of Martin's Catholic school retreat, through the hilarious tea-and-biscuits repartee of his eccentric elders, to the awkward wit and loose profanity of his two friends—the charismatic Kavanagh and the subversive Blaise Foley.
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.