Review by Melanie Cutting
Midwinter Break, published in 2017, is a slim (243 page), beautifully crafted, often funny, and surprisingly affecting novel. Author Bernard MacLaverty, 75, is a Northern Irish writer, presently living in Glasgow. He has written five collections of stories and four other novels, including Grace Notes, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Several of his books have been made into films.
Although this novel came out 16 years after his last work, it was, in my opinion, definitely worth the wait. As author Anne Enright says, “MacLavery is a sweetly astute writer, a master of fine detail, compassing the quotidian, the intimate, and the sacred. Midwinter Break shows us how ordinary and immense love can be.” And obviously, this is not easy task. Focusing on an older (I hesitate to use the term “elderly”) retired couple, Gerry and Stella Gilmore, the beginning of the book sees the two heading off from Glasgow in January for a short stay in Amsterdam. Why Amsterdam, in midwinter? The answer to that question appears only gradually, as we follow the two out of their home and into their mid-winter break.
Gerry is an architect who ended his career teaching architecture at university in Scotland, having left Belfast some 40 years before during “the Troubles”, and Stella is an English teacher. Their only child, Michael, lives in Canada with his wife and young son. They get together rarely, but enjoy their time together. It is evident that Gerry and Stella have been married for many years, and know one another’s foibles, tastes and habits intimately. For example, Stella takes the liberty of buying a pre-trip pair of black pajamas for Gerry, knowing that he will appreciate them, which he does. The two hold hands while crossing the street, and typically take the opportunity, when alone in an elevator, to share a kiss. Their love life, while not wild or exotic, is, nevertheless, still a component of their apparently happy marriage.
All in all, they are a study in contentment. Just when you think that pretty much nothing will happen while the two are visiting Amsterdam, beyond seeing the sights, visiting museums and eating out, Stella wakes early one morning and goes off on a mysterious mission of her own. When she reappears some hours later, she replies to Gerry’s queries that he would not understand the nature of her appointment since it concerned the spiritual component of Stella’s life. Ahh, a crack in the perfect structure of their marriage has become apparent. Stella is religious, Catholic actually, and Gerry is not. In fact, he is not above poking some “harmless” fun at Stella’s commitment to her faith, and to living a compassionate life. Gerry, on the other hand, seems only to be committed to finding as many occasions as possible to imbibe good, or at least passable, whisky. Some of the lengths to which he goes to downplay his proclivity are among the many quite funny parts of this book. In his night time efforts to dispose of a couple of now-empty travel sized liquor bottles in their hotel, he loses his way: “He turned and proceeded to retrace his steps, back past the ice-maker, past the pizza with artichokes. He began to laugh – this was one way to leave your wife. In the middle of the night, in a hotel in Amsterdam. They would find him at breakfast still padding around, his socks worn through, his feet bloodied with carpet friction. But maybe they wouldn’t find him. Maybe he’d never be seen again. He would die and mummify and disintegrate in a corner behind the ice-maker. End up as dust motes. Sucked into a Hoover operated by one of those lovely girls, in a lilac housecoat, from Thailand or Puerto Rico.”
An especially touching moment in the book occurs when the pair are leaving the Anne Frank house, and Stella decides to leave a small token (a gold earring) on a shelf where previous visitors have done the same. However, some minutes later she regrets her decision and goes back into the house to retrieve her earring, only to be spied by one of the other visitors and seen as a thief, plunging her into a sadness and despair that seems inappropriate to the incident.
Gerry and Stella are really the only characters in the book, beyond a small number of well-drawn but not very significant others from their past and present, so the task of maintaining the reader’s interest is formidable. It is truly a testament to MacLaverty’s skill in imbuing these rather ordinary people with hidden qualities, and a very deep love for one another, that leads the story, and the reader, to a satisfying conclusion. Toward the end of the book, the reason for the trip to Amsterdam comes to light, and concerns an incident of major importance in their shared past, and the resulting long-standing disappointment the couple, particularly Stella, is experiencing. While this revelation answered many of the questions raised by the story, the real joy in reading this book does not depend on the resolution of the “mystery”, but rather on the author’s ability to make you care about this long and tender relationship. It is truly a joy to read, and I highly recommend it.