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Cal by Bernard Maclaverty follows the plight of eighteen-year-old Cal McCrystal in 1980s Northern Ireland. Cal’s involvement in a murder sanctioned by the IRA threatens his freedom and his blossoming relationship. The Blackstaff Press published the novel in 1983.
During the conflict between Catholics and Protestants, Cal and his father, Shamie, are the only Catholics at the Protestant Estate where they live. Cal’s mother died when he was only eight, and his brother died while abroad, leaving Cal alone with his hard-nosed father.
Struggling to belong somewhere, Cal is a member of the IRA along with a boy he knows from his school days, Crilly. While Shamie had gotten Cal a job at a slaughterhouse, Cal wasn’t able to stomach the sight of blood and gave the job up, much to his father’s annoyance. Crilly took on the job instead.
On returning home one day, Cal finds a note on the door from his Protestant neighbors threatening to burn Shamie’s house down. This note is the first of two, but Shamie refuses to yield to the threats, causing tension in the household.
Cal sees an Italian librarian named Marcella and is attracted to her. He soon realizes that she is the widow of Robert Morton, the RUC officer Crilly killed while Cal was acting as the getaway driver for the IRA. Cal begins watching Marcella. He goes to her church a few times and visits her at the library, harboring guilt for his actions and hoping he can make amends.
One day when Cal is selling some wood for Shamie, he comes upon the Mortons’ farm. The elderly matriarch at the farm asks Cal to cut the wood into smaller pieces for her, and he complies. The woman, Marcella’s mother-in-law, offers Cal a job digging potatoes. There, Cal hopes to see Marcella every day.
Overcome with guilt over Robert’s murder, Cal tries to distance himself from his IRA friends, Crilly and Skeffington. The men refuse to let him out of his job as a getaway driver, assuring him that he is in the moral right, though Cal is not convinced.
On returning from the library one day, Cal finds that the Protestants have made good on their threat and his house is burning. He locates his father and the two stay at a relative’s house for the night.
Cal asks his father not to tell Crilly where he has gone and begins secretly living in an old cottage on Mrs. Morton’s farm. After a while, someone at the farm notices him lighting a cigarette, and the Army is sent to investigate. Mrs. Morton allows Cal to stay in the cottage, as it is more convenient than having to brick the place up.
Marcella begins visiting Cal at the cottage. They talk, have tea, and Marcella gives Cal some of her husband’s old clothes. Cal learns that Marcella’s marriage to Robert was rocky and that she feels isolated living with her in-laws. One afternoon while the pair is collecting blackberries, they hear an explosion and find a dead cow.
Mrs. Morton leaves town for a week and Cal and Marcella are left alone on the farm. Marcella has Cal over to the house for dinner and they kiss for the first time. Given their ten-year age difference and the dangerous environment around Catholics and Protestants, Marcella doesn’t think it is wise to continue, and she asks Cal to leave. A few days later, however, she shows up at Cal’s cottage, apologizes, and initiates intimacy.
Meanwhile, Cal has done a few driving jobs for Crilly and the IRA. He was the driver for a robbery, and they have recently included him in a plot to blow up the library. Worried about Marcella’s safety, Cal tips off the police. Just as Crilly, Cal, and Skeffington are meeting, the police arrive. Cal manages to escape but is arrested at his cottage a few days later. Despite his intention to do so, he was never able to confess to Marcella.
Though only around 100 pages, the novel focuses on some heavy themes. Isolation is a prominent theme; Cal and Shamie are isolated by their religion as Catholics in a Protestant community, and Marcella is isolated by her dependency on her in-laws. Cal separates himself from his only previous social engagement, that of the IRA, when he decides they are morally reprehensible.
The book also discusses a tumultuous time in Irish history when the IRA were acting as terrorists against the Protestant civilians of Northern Ireland. A bomb going off in a field and killing a cow illustrates the senseless violence the political and religious divide had caused. Crilly and Skeffington are two sides of the IRA coin, Crilly with a predilection for needless violence and Skeffington who considers himself a patriot acting for the benefit of Ireland.