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.