Midwinter Break

By Bernard MacLaverty

Jonathan Cape, £14.99

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Review by Malcolm Forbes

BERNARD MacLaverty’s fifth novel is his first in 16 years and his finest to date. Unlike those that came before it, which play out largely in the author’s native Northern Ireland and sporadically in his adopted homeland of Scotland, Midwinter Break eschews old ground for new terrain. This book also sees MacLaverty turning his gaze from young people growing up and enduring or escaping the Troubles, and focusing on a retired couple taking stock of the shared experience that has kept them together and the differences that now threaten to drive them apart. What remains the same, however, is MacLaverty’s emotional depth, his clear and lyrical prose, and his ability to create believable characters whose fates matter.

Gerry and Stella Gilmore leave their Glasgow tenement for a short post-Christmas break in Amsterdam. For Gerry, a former architect who still rails against IRA “disarchitects” back in Belfast, Amsterdam is a new destination; for Stella, an ex-English teacher from County Derry, it is a return trip. Before the flight, each visits duty-free for a vital, fear-allaying purchase: wristbands which prevent nausea during take-off and landing for her; a bottle of Jameson for him. Once in Amsterdam, they walk the frozen streets marvelling at foreign delights (the language, recklessly fast cyclists, double-decker trains) and eat and drink, bicker and banter.

When they stick to the tourist trail and take in the main sights the novel veers towards travelogue, with MacLaverty relaying facts through his characters’ discoveries. “The Dutch word for tulip was tulp,” Gerry notes at a flower market. But in time we realise that at each location or attraction something interesting or insightful materialises, whether a miniature drama, a relived memory, a fresh outlook, a revealing trait or foible – or a sign of a widening marital crack.

And so a painting of a reader in the Rijksmuseum takes Stella back to her childhood and the origins of her love affair with books and words. “People talked of being in difficulty and of opening the Bible for an answer but Stella played the same game with the dictionary.” A pit-stop at a bar in the red-light district and an Irish pub kitted out with “the whole paddywhackery” rams home Gerry’s drink-dependence: “Alcohol is the rubber tyres between me and the pier.” A misunderstanding in the Anne Frank House leaves Stella feeling mortified; a visit to a church leads her to take the first, tentative steps towards overhauling her life and fully embracing her faith.

This revelation marks a turning-point in the book. Events then reach a crisis point when Stella worries that: “There’s not that much marriage left in us.” Suddenly the novel’s weak, too-literal title acquires another, more ominous meaning – not so much short break as permanent rupture. The pair press on, exploring the city together through biting wind and falling snow, while individually reflecting on where they have been, what they have overcome, and the uncertainties that lie ahead.

DH Lawrence described his short story The Horse Dealer’s Daughter as “a midwinter story of oblivion”. MacLaverty’s midwinter-steeped novel takes its protagonists to the brink of a similar void – separation. It also routinely depicts an alcoholic Gerry facing, and toppling into, his own oblivion – going, as Stella puts it, “beyond the beyonds”. MacLaverty starts out softly, introducing an endearing armchair drinker who rises and soars “on the thermals of the first couple of glasses” and who maintains that whiskey helps him listen sharper, see more and love better. But as the narrative progresses, MacLaverty ushers in a grim reality, showing Gerry either over the limit and ribbing his wife for the little she drinks (“Priests drink more wine saying Mass than you do”) or over the edge and staggering lost down a hotel corridor and denying, or losing track of, how much he has sunk.

And yet for all the dark tones and shattering consequences – not to mention the violent, scattergun Belfast flashbacks – this is no bleak midwinter tale. We are far from the raw, intolerant worlds of MacLaverty’s early books, and the “bloody dunderin” of the Protestant drums that sound-tracked his 1997 novel Grace Notes. Instead, Midwinter Break strikes a similar balance to that of its predecessor, The Anatomy School (2001), blending the rough and the smooth, the tragic and the comic.

Gerry and Stella’s repartee crackles on the page. His wit is observational and covers all bases: pigeons which fly off simultaneously, first one then all, “must be Catholics”. Her wordplay highlights his shortcomings: “Your fallback position – Gerry – is, in every instance, to fall back.” Their back-and-forth exchanges come laced with genuine feeling and Irish slang (“Catch yourself on,” she says, chiding him; “You’re stopping me getting over,” he complains to her). They indulge in fond recollection and curmudgeonly grumbling. The trials of ageing frustrate them, and they share their grievances every day in the allocated Ailment Hour. Mobile phones confound them: “They were of a generation who had used crank-handled phones in Donegal.” Amsterdam beguiles them. He has flaws and she has aspirations but despite their contradictions and incongruities they still have a reserve of mutual love. But is it enough?

There is a moment when Gerry ruminates on his career and decides that “architecture was about shedding light”. Good fiction sheds light too, illuminating the peculiar facets that make up the human condition. MacLaverty’s novel casts such a glow, and creates effects that prove to be both compassionate and compelling.