Sixteen years on from his last novel, Bernard MacLaverty reminds us why he is regarded as one of the greatest living Irish writers. A retired couple, Gerry and Stella Gilmore, fly from their home in Scotland to Amsterdam for a long weekend. A holiday to refresh the senses, to do some sightseeing and generally to take stock of what remains of their lives. Their relationship seems safe, easy, familiar – but over the course of the four days we discover the deep uncertainties which exist between them.
Gerry, once an architect, is forgetful and set in his ways. Stella is tired of his lifestyle, worried about their marriage and angry at his constant undermining of her religious faith. Things are not helped by memories which have begun to resurface of a troubled time in their native Ireland. As their midwinter break comes to an end, we understand how far apart they are – and can only watch as they struggle to save themselves.
Midwinter Break is one of those books that linger in your mind, keeping the cogs and wheels turning, until you understand why it is that it resonates so deeply. If Keats was right and ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’ – that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know’, then Midwinter Break is the novel equivalent of Keats’ phrase.
As ever with MacLaverty, the prose is both beautiful and affecting. He has such a delicate touch; a nuanced, rich and understated dialogue from which you draw meaning without even knowing it.
Stella and Gerry have been married for over 40 years. Stella is a practising Catholic; she used to be an English teacher and now does cryptic crosswords to keep her mind active. Gerry is an architect who once dreamed of making beautiful buildings but now takes solace in his liking for drink.
Both met in their native Belfast but have long since moved to Glasgow when the battles of Northern Ireland took too much toll on their lives. When we meet them, they are quietly bickering as they prepare to go on a midwinter break to Amsterdam. But who, with any sense, leaves a bleak Glasgow in January to go to a bleaker Amsterdam where the winds coming straight off the sea are even more biting in that month?
It transpires that Stella has an agenda she has not yet shared with Gerry, but this weekend will be the one that shapes the future of their relationship.
In Midwinter Break, every word is thought through, every phrase precisely placed and nothing is redundant.
MacLaverty offers a portrait of a marriage that relies on two people knowing and understanding each other, sometimes too well, as they share a lifetime of understood shared jokes and allusions.
As they share their hotel room and together journey round Amsterdam, there is much to enjoy in this couples relationship, their mutual enjoyment and their still healthy sex life. Yet over this there is a dark cloud that hovers. Of course, intimations of mortality are present in the small but growing signs of ageing that each displays. Stella’s knees are stiff; Gerry is ever more forgetful. We learn that Stella has scars and as we understand how they were caused we are transported back to Stella and Gerry’s youth in the midst of the sectarian divide and we begin to understand what has really driven Stella to investigate the option she is exploring in Amsterdam.
Throughout MacLaverty’s exploration of this marriage we see that there is love, understanding and companionship. And yet there is disappointment, disaffection and dark clouds loom.
When Stella decides, after a disappointing interview in a women’s Catholic order, that she is ready to really talk to Gerry about what she wants for her life, the small cracks in their marriage could well grow into gaps of earthquake proportions.
But this is not a drama. As I said at the beginning, it is an understated, honest and very truthful portrait. As Leonard Cohen says so eloquently in Anthem; “There is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
Above all, Midwinter Break is a book about how optimism can still beat in our hearts in the face of serious adversity. As such, it is hauntingly, achingly, beautiful.
I urge you to read it. I will be buying it as well as giving it to everyone I know. It is, quite simply, outstanding.
Midwinter Break is published by Jonathan Cape on 3rd August 2017.
About Bernard MacLaverty
Bernard MacLaverty was born in Belfast and lived there until 1975 when he moved to Scotland with his wife, Madeline, and four children. He has been a Medical Laboratory Technician, a mature student, a teacher of English and occasionally a Writer-in-Residence (Universities of Aberdeen, Augsburg, Liverpool John Moore’s and Iowa State). After living for a time in Edinburgh and the Isle of Islay he now lives in Glasgow. He is a member of Aosdana in Ireland.
He has published four novels and five collections of short stories most of which are gathered into Collected Stories (2013). He has written versions of his fiction for other media – radio plays, television plays, screenplays, libretti.