Author, Bernard MacLaverty, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Netherlands, Publisher, Setting, W.W. Norton & Company

‘Midwinter Break’ by Bernard MacLaverty

Fiction – paperback; W. W. Norton & Company; 208 pages; 2018.

Northern Irish writer Bernard MacLaverty’s Midwinter Break is an intimate portrait of a long marriage between two “empty nesters” who are keeping secrets from each other.

Gerry, a retired architect, is desperately trying to hide his dependence on alcohol. At the same time, Stella, a former teacher, wants to explore her faith by joining a religious order — without her husband tagging along.

It’s only when the pair go on a midwinter break to Amsterdam that things begin to go awry and they are forced to confront the fact that they want different things out of life now that they have raised their family and no longer work. Stella describes it like this: “I’m tired. I’m tired of living the way we do.”

A quietly devastating story

Slow-moving and with next to no plot, the story unfolds gently in the third person.

MacLaverty employs a close observational style that details the minutia of travel and the minor tensions and annoyances that can arise when a couple are confined together in strange surroundings.

As the pair traverse the city, visiting the sites — the Red Light District, the Rijksmuseum and Anne Frank’s house, amongst others — we follow their every move in minute detail, eavesdrop on their conversations and come to understand their deep love and affection for one another. But we can also see the pressure points.

MacLaverty switches the viewpoint from character to character with each new chapter, giving the reader a glimpse of the individual mindsets at play, and from this clever, but gently deployed device, we see how Gerry and Stella are very different people, driven by different agendas, motivations and desires.

Through this slow but intimate revealing of personality, a quietly devastating picture builds of a couple who endured a tragedy early on in their marriage and handled it in vastly different ways. That event, which resulted in them leaving their native Belfast for a new life in Scotland, has shaped them in ways that are still playing out 50 years later…

Contemplative — and funny, too

I loved this deeply contemplative book, with its intimate insights into a marriage and its carefully constructed narrative. It’s not overly heavy or depressing; it’s realistic and wise and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny.

There’s a particular scene in Anne Frank’s house, in which Stella is mistakenly thought to have stolen an item, that is quite hilarious, and there are other more observant “truths” that resonated. I’ll leave you with this gem, a metaphor for the push and pull of Gerry and Stella’s long marriage:

A gap opened up in the traffic, and he walked her to the middle. There was a black four-by-four approaching but they had time to cross. Gerry strode forward but Stella was nervous and held back. He tightened his grip on her hand but she had frozen in the middle of the road.
‘Come on.’ She wrenched her hand away from his. Her whole body was immovable so Gerry walked on across the road. He waited for her on the far pavement. She stood in the road looking this way and that. The black four-by-four cruised past her and she came almost running to Gerry’s side.
‘Some day you’ll get us both killed,’ he said.
‘I can judge for myself,’ she said. ‘But you can’t judge for me.’

Other (less favourable) reviews include Brona’s at This Reading Life and Karen’s at Booker Talk.

I read this book back in August as part of my participation in #20booksofsummer 2022 edition but just never got around to reviewing it. I bought it secondhand from my local book warehouse in January 2022.

20 books of summer, Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Gerbrand Bakker, literary fiction, Netherlands, Publisher, Setting, Vintage

‘The Twin’ by Gerbrand Bakker

Fiction – Kindle edition; Vintage; 345 pages; 2008. Translated from the Dutch by David Colmer.

The Twin by Gerbrand Bakker is a quietly understated novel that brims with a slow-moving rage and a gentle, long-lived grief. It’s a story about loss, resentment and thwarted opportunities and examines what happens to people who — for whatever reason — don’t take things into their own hands, letting circumstances and family obligations dominate their lives.

A farmer’s lot

Told in the first person from the perspective of a 55-year-old farmer, Helmer Van Wonderen, nothing much seems to happen and yet a lifetime of hurt is encapsulated in this coolly observed tale.

It’s set in the Waterlands region of the Netherlands, where Helmer now runs the family farm — 20 sheep and a handful of milking cows — single-handedly. His aged father, with whom he has a difficult relationship, has been installed in a bedroom upstairs, seemingly locked away and treated like an unwelcome lodger.

The tension between father and son is long-running, stemming from the death of Helmer’s twin, Henk, more than 30 years ago. Henk was the favoured son. He was in love with a girl called Riet and was set to inherit the farm. But when he died in a car accident, Helmer had to put his university studies on hold and return home. He has remained there ever since.

I’ve been scared all my life. Scared of silence and darkness. I’ve also had trouble falling asleep all my life. I only need to hear one sound I can’t place and I’m wide awake.

Now, having never married nor had children, Helmer is reassessing his life, wondering how he has so little to show for all the years that have come to pass. He realises he is the last in the line of Van Wonderens and becomes sentimental by this fact.

Without a wife, without kids and with a decrepit father who’s never wasted a word on family in my presence, I never expected myself to get sentimental about my own flesh and blood. Is it the farm? Our farm? A collection of buildings, animals and land I didn’t want anything to do with, an entity that was forced on me, but gradually became part of me?

He’s becoming increasingly agitated with his father, telling his neighbour Ada that his dad is going senile and that’s why she can’t go upstairs to say hello to him. There are other disturbing behaviours that indicate Hemler has a cruel streak.

But he’s also a man who has dreams. When he finds out another neighbour has sold his farm and moved to Denmark, Helmer wonders why he can’t pursue that kind of path, too. He sells three sheep so he can buy a detailed map of Denmark, which he gets framed and hangs on his bedroom wall. Every night, before sleep, he stares at the map and says aloud three or more town names, almost like an affirmation that one day he will get to visit them for real.

His ennui is further shaken by news the local livestock dealer is retiring, quickly followed by the milk tank driver. Is it time for Helmer to do something different too?

A stranger calls

When Riet, newly widowed, gets in touch three decades after Henk’s death, Helmer is presented with an opportunity to have his life shaken up a little. Riet asks him whether her son, who is also named Henk, could come and stay awhile, perhaps working as a farmhand, to which he reluctantly agrees.

And when Henk arrives, a new side of Helmer is revealed, a more caring, fatherly side. But he’s also occasionally provoked into fits of violent anger, for Henk is selfish and lazy, prone to sleeping in, shirking responsibility and speaking his mind.

Henk is actually a kind of nephew, I think when I close the door to the stairs and see him standing there. He is pulling on his overalls, the ones with the crotch that rides up, the sleeves that are too short and the tear in one armpit. A half-nephew, a could-have-been-nephew, a nephew-in-law.

Their relationship, tender and confrontational by turn, shows Helmer he can connect with people if he so wishes. He doesn’t need to remain passive. He can take control of his own life, steer it in the direction he chooses, and that he can move on without his twin, who has cast such a long shadow over his entire adult life.

I’ve been doing things by halves for so long now. For so long I’ve had just half a body. No more shoulder to shoulder, no more chest to chest, no more taking each other’s presence for granted. Soon I’ll go and do the milking. Tomorrow morning I’ll milk again. And the rest of the week, of course, and next week. But it’s no longer enough. I don’t think I can go on hiding behind the cows and letting things happen. Like an idiot.

An unexpected delight

The Twin is an unexpected delight of a book.

Its slow-moving, gentle narrative, written in pared-back prose, combined with its rural setting, is highly reminiscent of the Irish fiction I love so much.

It presents an old-fashioned world dominated by closed-off men, the kind of men that might have a deep love of nature but can’t communicate with people or express emotion beyond pent-up anger. It’s confronting in places, deeply sorrowful in others, but there are also light-hearted scenes and funny moments, and it ends on a satisfying, hopeful note.

This is my 12th book for #20booksofsummer 2021 edition. I bought it on Kindle on 10 March 2013 for £5.22. I actually think it was a book club choice but for whatever reason, I didn’t read the book or attend the discussion. Sometimes it does take me an AGE to read books on my TBR – this one only took 8 years!

Allen & Unwin, Australia, Author, Book review, Dominic Smith, Fiction, literary fiction, Netherlands, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Setting, USA

‘The Last Painting of Sara de Vos’ by Dominic Smith

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos

Fiction – hardcover; Allen & Unwin; 384 pages; 2016. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

I quite like stories about art, and for whatever reason Australian authors seem to like writing them: think Peter Carey’s Theft: A Love StoryAlex Miller’s Autumn Laing and Patrick White’s The Vivisector.

Into this canon of art-themed novels comes Australian expat Dominic Smith’s The Last Painting of Sara de Vos, a rather exquisite tale revolving around a painting by a (fictional) 17th century Dutch painter, the first woman to ever become a member of the Guild of Saint Luke in Holland, joining the likes of Rembrandt and Vermeer. It spans three centuries, is set in three cities — New York, Amsterdam and Sydney — and begins as a crime story before morphing into a mystery-cum-thwarted-romance-cum-cat-and-mouse-suspense tale.

It’s a page turner of the finest order and has already attracted favourable publicity in the US, where Smith resides, including this excellent review in the New York Times. Meanwhile, in Australia, it has topped the independent bookseller’s list (in June) and garnered great reviews in the Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian. Blogger Lisa Hill has sung its praises too.

An unnoticed crime

The book opens in rather dramatic style. It’s 1957, the setting is the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Wealthy patent attorney Marty de Groot and his wife are throwing an extravagant party in their three-storey penthouse to raise money for the city’s orphans, something they do every year.

During the party a crime is committed — although it takes them several months to realise. A painting from the Dutch Golden Age that has been in Marty’s family for more than three centuries — and which hangs over the marital bed like a bad omen — is stolen. A fake is put in its place.

The fake was unwittingly produced by a PhD art student, Ellie Shipley, an Australian now living in Brooklyn, who has reached an impasse in her dissertation on women painters of the Dutch Golden Age and spends most of her time doing art restoration work instead. (She had initially trained for a career in conservation at the Courtauld Institute in London but moved into art history when she realised the plum jobs would always “go to older, male graduates, to the men who sported cable-knit cardigans and Oxbridge accents”.)

As part of this line of work, she is often asked to authenticate and touch up old masterworks, so when she is commissioned by her usual contact to replicate At the Edge of the World, a rather sombre painting by a little known female artist, she is immediately taken by the project even if she is skeptical of the agenda behind it:

When he produced three high-resolution colour photographs of the painting in its frame she felt her breath catch — it was unlike anything else painted by a baroque woman. Here was a winter landscape with the glaucous atmosphere of an Avercamp, the delicate grays and blues and russets, the peasants skating through the ether of twilight above the ice, but with this stark and forlorn figure standing at the tree. She was the onlooker but also the focal point, the centre of gravity. This was no village frolic before the onrush of night — a common Avercamp motif — this was a moment of suspension, a girl trapped by the eternity of dusk. The girl had been lavished with very fine brushwork, the hem of her dress frayed by a hundred filaments of paint, each one half the width of a human hair. The painting’s atmosphere, even in the photographs, was incandescent, hushed. It somehow combined the devotional, religious light of a monastery portrait and the moodiness of an Italian allegory.

Ellie accepts the challenge of reproducing this painting with a kind of relish, but it’s a decision that haunts her for the rest of her life. It not only brings her into close contact with Marty, who woos her in an underhand way, hoping she’ll confess to the crime, but threatens to unravel her relatively controlled but lonely life — and, then, decades later puts her much-lauded career at risk.

A trio of storylines

This crime-based 1950s Manhattan storyline — in which Marty and Ellie eventually meet  — is intertwined with two others: that of Sara de Vos herself and the tragic circumstances leading up to her creating the painting in question; and a more contemporary narrative in which Ellie, now an internationally renowned art historian living in Sydney, fears she’s going to be exposed as a forger when both the original and the replica paintings arrive simultaneously at the Gallery of New South Wales for an exhibition she is staging — and Marty, now in his 80s, isn’t far behind.

These different narrative threads are told in alternate chapters, creating a complex, non-linear novel, but one which is highly entertaining.

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos works as a cohesive whole because there’s an underlying fear holding the story together: will Ellie’s crime be discovered? As she and Marty conduct a cat-and-mouse game spanning almost 50 years, the reader is constantly wondering whether Ellie’s past will finally catch up with her.  This build up of suspense is aided by the intermittent switches in pace when the author takes us back to 17th century Holland to tell us the tragic story of Sara de Vos who never achieved proper recognition for her talents during her lifetime because women painters were never taken seriously.

Aside from the expert storytelling at its heart, the novel is incredibly well researched: the forger’s techniques and how to authenticate centuries-old artwork is expertly told, giving the reader a fascinating glimpse into an otherwise foreign world: that of the art historian and conservator. Even Sara de Vos is based upon an amalgamation of various real-life Dutch Golden Age painters, including Sarah van Baalbergen, who gained entry to the Haarlem Guild of St Luke in 1631, the first woman to do so. Sadly, none of her work survives.

And the characters are great — all slightly damaged but good-hearted, the kind of people you care about or empathise with for various different reasons. There are parallels between Sara and Ellie, two women struggling to be taken seriously in the art world more than three centuries apart, which infuse their stories with the spirit of the underdog. And while Marty comes from a different world entirely — privileged, white and male — he’s sympathetically drawn, because he knows he’s never quite lived up to his potential.

All up, this is a wonderfully realised tale that marries a contemporary storyline with two historical ones. It shines a light both on the hidden world of art forgery and women’s unrecognised contributions to the Dutch Golden Age. And its mix of crime, suspense, romance and tragedy makes it a clever and compelling read. You may never look at an old master the same way again.

This is my 32nd book for #ReadingAustralia2016

Author, Book review, Fiction, Harper Collins, historical fiction, literary fiction, Netherlands, Publisher, Setting, Tracy Chevalier

‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’ by Tracy Chevalier


Fiction – paperback; Harper Collins; 248 pages; 1999.

Set in 17th century Holland, Tracy Chevalier’s Girl With a Pearl Earring tells the story of a young Protestant girl, Griet, who becomes a maid in the household of artist and Delft School member Johannes Vermeer.

Griet, who struggles to understand her place in this strange new Catholic world, becomes Vermeer’s secret assistant. She graduates from cleaning his studio and grinding the lead for his paints to becoming the famous wide-eyed girl in his painting Girl With a Pearl Earring.

While Chevalier successfully recreates the hierarchical society in which the artist was revered and captures the simple beauty of Vermeer’s portraits in stripped-down prose, I found the writing stodgy, the characters dull and the plot somewhat unbelievable. I found myself continually wondering why it was so damn important for this girl to hide the fact that she was Vermeer’s assistant. Let’s hope that the film is more enlightening and exciting.