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The married couple at the centre of Bernard MacLaverty’s first novel in 16 years have reached that stage of life where “every time I open my glasses case nowadays, I am pleasantly surprised to find my glasses”. Gerry and Stella have survived the Troubles, raised a son now living in Canada, had careers in architecture and teaching. Their memories reach back to Northern Ireland in the 40s and 50s; their future is both circumscribed and uncertain. Don’t they deserve a little holiday?
But the midwinter break of the title turns out to refer not only to their long weekend in Amsterdam, but to the possibility of a rupture between them, as well as the more general stumbling blocks of old age. Stella has an agenda for the trip that goes beyond visits to Anne Frank’s house and the Rijksmuseum, while the enforced intimacy of time away from home will shine an unforgiving light on the furtive alcohol habit that is coming to saturate Gerry’s every thought.
MacLaverty takes us from the perspective of one to the other with great efficiency and delicacy as they wait for a taxi to the airport, pass round the Werther’s Originals in the departure lounge, arrange their Amsterdam hotel room into a temporary home. It is extraordinary how his blunt, declarative sentences translate the fiddly minutiae of life – the pleated paper from a bar of hotel soap, the cellophane packaging round a pair of pyjamas – into utterly gripping prose. With acute, understated tenderness, he charts the medical palaver and hyper-awareness of the body’s fragility that come with age: the noisily popping blister packs of pills; the “blood-red winter trees” Gerry sees as he stares into his own bleary eyes; the toilet seat slightly lower than at home, meaning he “panicked in the last few millimetres of his descent”.
This unflinching attention to the textural detail of minute-by-minute existence slowly builds into a profound exploration of the biggest themes in both public and private life: faith, politics and fanaticism; love and loneliness; joint compromise and individual purpose. It demonstrates, too, how alcohol can blot out every other concern. While Stella is wondering what to do with her life – “The family is raised – the work’s done. That can’t be it, can it? There’s 10 or 20 years left over, as it were” – Gerry is pouring all his mental resources into surreptitious schemes to top up the “traveller’s friend” he bought in Duty Free.
In 40 years of short stories and four previous novels, MacLaverty has written often about the distance between couples: about men floored by alcohol, and women examining their faith; about religious prejudice in Northern Ireland, the violence of the Troubles and the stranglehold of the Catholic church. Midwinter Break reads as both a summation of his themes and a remarkable late flowering. Gerry and Stella escaped Northern Ireland decades ago by moving, like MacLaverty, to Scotland, but over the course of the novel their memories circle back to a life-changing act of violence there. Gerry is bitterly scornful about the country of his birth (“Isn’t it strange that Ireland’s biggest export is a lesson in how to enjoy yourself. That and the car bomb”), but remains loyal to its whiskey.
The pair are garrulous, complementary, running through familiar shared routines and facing the indignities of old age with humour: they limit each day’s discussion of aches and pains to 60 minutes in what they’ve christened the Ailment Hour. (Another couple call their version the Organ Recital.) But like any long-married couple, they can also be presented as a study in opposites: Stella’s faith versus Gerry’s rationalism; her scrupulous meanness versus his unbridled appetite for booze. The wind makes Gerry weep these days, whereas Stella needs to lubricate her dry eyes with artificial tears: MacLaverty’s use of symbolism is as brisk and effective as his prose, and as lightly yet firmly sketched. If marriage is a long conversation about how best to live, Gerry and Stella have not yet stopped debating their positions: “We can’t be responsible for everybody’s grief,” he says. “That’s the only way forward,” she replies.
And below the surface of the story, shared memories and metaphors link their two minds, as MacLaverty shows how decades of intimacy work to mingle consciousnesses as well as experience, and yet how far we remain unknowable to each other. In some ways the novel is a study in perspective, as the pair move between intimacy and distance.
Several times Gerry sees Stella from afar, lost in her thoughts or wrapped in prayer, and wonders how much he knows her at all. Both climb above the city, Stella in Amsterdam and Gerry in Derry, rejoicing in a fresh view of the world below. Watching birds over the rooftops, Stella gains a whole new cosmic perspective, thinking of Bede’s description of life as a sparrow flying through a banqueting hall from darkness to darkness: “The fire, the food, the finite …. And the older you get the quicker it goes.”
There’s a very Joycean snowstorm towards the end, a challenge to which MacLaverty rises with aplomb, while the small talk can seem Beckettian at times as Stella and Gerry murmur to each other while life’s final horizon comes into view:
“‘Do you feel close?’
‘To the end?’
‘No, do you feel close to me.’
‘We’re side by side.’
‘Come on. Answer,’ he said.”
Much of marriage is asking that question and waiting for the reply. This is a quietly brilliant novel, which makes for essential reading at any stage of life.
Source: The Guardian
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