I have loved the work of the Irish writer Bernard McLaverty for many years, partly because of the quiet, almost imperceptible way that he careful layers tiny observations about his characters — gestures, facial expressions, verbal mannerisms — on top of each other to slowly reveal their hidden selves. But mostly for the generosity and compassion that he gives to them.
Midwinter Break is his first novel in 16 years. At first it seems like a rather modest affair – the story of a long-married couple on the cusp of old age on holiday in Amsterdam for a long weekend in January – but it gradually opens up to encompass most of the themes that McLaverty has explored in his four previous novels (Lamb, Cal, Grace Notes, The Anatomy Lesson): love, religious faith, personal responsibility, alcoholism and Ireland’s troubled history of sectarian violence.
The couple at the centre of the novel are Gerry and Stella Gilmore. He’s a retired architect who drinks too much and seems unmoored. She’s a retired English teacher who we learn early on has been wounded physically in the past, presumably during Ireland’s Troubles. It takes a long time for her story to emerge.
They are clearly a couple in synch with each other’s moods and habits. They hold hands whenever crossing the road together and they have a habit of kissing each other every time they find themselves alone in an elevator. Still, there are hints of discontent early on.
We learn that the couple moved from Belfast to Glasgow many years before, that they have a grown son and young grandson in Canada and that although Gerry has lost his faith Stella is a very deeply involved and serious Catholic.
The trip to Amsterdam was Stella’s idea and she has a secret agenda which Gerry is both too obtuse and too sozzled to work out.
Stella has decided to investigate moving to a laywoman’s religious community in Amsterdam. The scene where she tries to explain this to Gerry shows McLaverty’s skill at quiet minimalism:
‘I’m tired. I’m tired of living the way we do.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘There are important questions to be answered. How can we best live our lives? How can we live good lives?’
Gerry gave a slow shrug. ‘And there’s somebody in there with the answers?’
‘There’s a word you never hear nowadays, a word from my childhood –devout – I want to live a more devout life.’
‘And how do you do that?’
‘I don’t think you’d understand. If you’re not a believer. It’s to do with
charity, to do with prayer. I’m just exploring.’
‘And if you find what you’re looking for?’
‘It’ll be good.’ She shrugged. ‘But I know it’ll lead to other – more difficult– questions.’
‘And where does that leave me? Us?’
‘In different places.’
Midwinter Break has a very intimate feel to it. It reminded me of character studies like Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach or Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day.
It is also, in its own way, a sensual book in the sense that we inhabit Gerry and Stella’s bodies throughout the novel: their aches and pains, their tender love making in the hotel as well as their bodily functions. A lot of the novel takes place in bathrooms.
Gerry and Stella are not especially rare people, but people like them are rare in fiction today. It was a pleasure for me to get to know them so closely and a tribute to McLaverty’s skill that I missed them so much by the time I reached the last page.
Midwinter Break by Bernard McLaverty, W.W. Norton, 208pp.