There’s an oft-quoted comment that only the people involved really know what is going in any relationship. In the case of Gerry and Stella Gilmore, the key people in Midwinter Break by Bernard MacLaverty, it seems only one of the duo understands the changing dynamics of their marriage.
The Gilmores are taking a short trip to Amsterdam. Gerry thinks they’re going to do the usual tourist activities like visiting Anne Frank’s house and the Rijksmuseum. What he doesn’t know is that Stella has an agenda of her own, one in which Gerry plays no part. It transpires that the title of the book refers not merely their long weekend break in Amsterdam, but to the threat of a rupture in their marriage.
As MacLaverty takes us from the perspective of one to the other, it becomes evident to us — if not to the people concerned — how much their marriage is based on familiarity and routine.
Stella likes to do crosswords and have an afternoon nap to compensate for her insomnia. He likes a glass of something. She loves people. He loves music and architecture. They both enjoy words and banter.
There is tenderness in this relationship. Every time they have a lift to themselves, they kiss between floors – it is just a little thing they do – and whenever they’re out walking, they hold hands in case she falls. There is also humour: each day they share updates on their various aches and pains; a discussion which has become so institutionalised it even has its own name — the Ailment Hour.
You’d think they well set up to be solid companions for life. But they each have secrets.
Gerry’s is of the liquid variety. He’s never happier than when he has a glass of something in his hand. Unless it’s a bottle in his pocket. He thinks he’s being so smart when he hides the glass from Stella’s sight or slips out of the hotel bedroom at night to hide his empty bottles in a litter bin. But he’s forgotten that Stella’s a smart woman.
Stella’s secret has its origins decades earlier when they lived in Ireland during the period of The Troubles. They left the country after Stella was injured in a street shooting incident, a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Her close shave with death set her on a spiritual path where in her remaining years, she wants to live “a more valuable life” and “make a contribution, however small” to the world.
She hasn’t told Gerry but she’s arrived in Amsterdam with the intention of taking a significant step forward in her plan to make more of a contribution to the world.
Minute dissection of a marriage
This is a profound examination of a relationship that has lost its sparkle and now rests on familiarity. They’ve been together for 16 years and outwardly give every indication that they are in tune with each other’s thoughts and feelings. But by switching perspectives between Gerry and Stella, MacLaverty in fact shows how erroneous this view is andthat in fact there is considerable distance between them. Several times when Gerry sees Stella from afar, lost in her thoughts or wrapped in prayer, he wonders how much he knows her at all. The answer of course is that he doesn’t.
Midwinter Break dissects this marriage completely. Nothing this couple does, however small, seems to escape MacLaverty’s attention; from the packet of Werther’s Originals they share at take-off to the pleated paper that encases the bar of hotel soap and the colour of spit after red wine.
After a while this level of minutiae became irritating.
Towards the end of the book for example Gerry reflects on all the things about Stella that he admires. Chief of which is the depth and breadth of her knowledge bank. It’s not enough for MacLaverty to just tell us this, we have to get a list of every single thing that she knows:
She knew that the full name of the Litany recited after the rosary of benediction was th Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary. She knew that Albert Pierrepoint’s father was also a hangman, that farinaceous meant floury when applied to potatoes but that flowery language could not be described as such, as farinaceous… She knew the recipes for mushroom stroganoff and spaghetti carbonara and about forty-two other dishes without looking at a cookery book … Oh and that a Sitzprobe was nothing medical but the rehearsal for an opera.
And on and on this goes. For four whole pages…. Very tiresome indeed and totally unnecessary.
The second aspect that prevented this being an out and out success for me was the premise for Stella’s decision to leave Gerry.
We learn that as she lay wounded in Ireland, she prayed that her unborn child would be saved, making a vow that if the child lived she would be in debt to her Lord for the rest of her life. Now in Amsterdam she visits the Begijnhof, home of a Catholic sisterhood, with the intention of fulfilling that vow by taking up residence and living a life of piety and good works. This didn’t ring true for me if she felt that strongly, wouldn’t she have followed through on the promise much earlier – not wait 30 years?
It’s a shame because otherwise this was a good story full of close observation of the reality of life. Midwinter Break hasn’t put me off reading some of MacLaverty’s other works.
Midwinter Break by Bermard MacLaverty: Endnotes
Bernard MacLaverty comes from Northern Ireland but moved to Scotland in 1975, currently living in Glasgow..
He is the author of the novels Lamb (1980); Cal (1983); Grace Notes (1997); and The Anatomy School (2001), set in Belfast in the late 1960s. Both Lamb and Cal have been made into major films for which he wrote the screenplays, and he has written various versions of his fiction for radio, television and screen. Grace Notes was awarded the 1997 Saltire Society Scottish Book of the Year Award and shortlisted for many other major prizes, including the 1997 Booker Prize for Fiction and the Whitbread Novel Award.
Midwinter Break was published in 2017.
This review was published originally in 2018. The formatting has been updated to improve readability. Additional biographical information has also been included.