Book review: Midwinter Break, by Bernard MacLaverty

With the ability to reveal whole lives in a short time period, Bernard MacLaverty's wise and beautiful book was worth the wait

Bernard MacLaverty is better known as a short story writer. Picture: Robert Burns

Bernard MacLaverty is better-known as a writer of exquisitely crafted short stories than as a novelist. Indeed his first novel, Lamb, was published as long ago as 1980, and Midwinter Break is only his fifth. It is however an exceptionally good book, beautifully and intelligently written, well worth waiting for.

In outline it is elegantly simple. Gerry and Stella, a long-married couple living in Glasgow, are taking the title’s midwinter break in Amsterdam.

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Both come from Northern Ireland – like MacLaverty himself. Both are Catholics. Gerry has lost or abandoned his faith, and isn’t troubled by this. Stella is devout, intensely so for a reason which is not divulged until well-on in the narrative. Gerry is, or has been, an architect, successful though unfulfilled. They retain love for each other – have a long-standing habit of kissing when alone in a lift, and still have sexual relations, somewhat surprisingly; indeed this is almost the only somewhat unconvincing note struck in the novel.

Their marriage therefore isn’t dead, but it is tattered. Gerry drinks too much. Without, he believes, ever really getting drunk, he is never truly sober. He has become dependent on Irish whiskey – beer, wine and gin-and-tonics don’t count – and he conceals the amount he drinks, less successfully than he supposes. They have one child, a son now living in Canada with his French-Canadian wife and young son; Stella feels deprived of grandmothering.

Gerry supposes this break in wintry Amsterdam is no more than that. Stella has another purpose. Stifled in the marriage, resenting Gerry’s drinking and his indifference, even hostility, to her religion, she is considering a different sort of break. She has come to Amsterdam with the intention of exploring the possibility of joining a Lay Order called the “Beguines” not exactly Nuns because they take no vows , in the hope that she can lead “a more valuable life. Which is spiritual and useful.”

The novel moves deftly back and forward in time, back to their childhood – especially Stella’s impoverished one – in Northern Ireland, to memories of the Troubles and to a terrorist incident in which Stella nearly lost her life and that of their unborn son. It is now, she thinks, time that the vow she made then should be fulfilled.

Gerry knows none of this as he moons from bar to bar and buys half-bottles of dubious whiskey which he hides from Stella. It would have been easy for MacLaverty to have made Gerry a despicable character, but he isn’t. He still loves, admires and cares for Stella, even though he is also wary of her; the idea of parting has never occurred to him. He also retains his interest in architecture and painting and is still most of the time capable, even confident. His character is very subtly and understandingly drawn.

The atmosphere of Amsterdam in a wet and chilly winter is vividly evoked. Weather is always important in novels and the weather here is a fair reflection of the state of the couple’s marriage. There are no dramatic incidents but there is acute emotional tension. The narrative is quiet but compelling. You read wondering how things will turn out, probably with anxiety. MacLaverty shows how, even in a damaged marriage, there may still be mutual dependence. Sometimes one seems stronger, sometimes the other.

I don’t see how it could have been better done. MacLaverty, like William Trevor, echoes of whose work may be heard on almost every page, has the ability to reveal whole lives while apparently dealing with only a short and concentrated period of time.

He writes with an unfailing and generous sympathy. In different ways both Stella, though competent in so many ways, and Gerry are damaged people.

Everything rings true. Like all fictional characters, they are invented beings, but, as in the best novels, they seem to be remembered. They are so convincing because MacLaverty is a master of the significant detail. He shows the sadness of lives which are less than they might have been – as most lives are – and yet still matter. It’s a long time since his last novel. This wise and beautiful book was worth waiting for.

Midwinter Break is published by Jonathan Cape, £14.99

Bernard MacLaverty is at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on 16 August