There’s an oft-quoted comment that only the people involved really know what is going in any relationship. In the case of the Gilmores, the key people in Bernard MacLaverty’s Midwinter Break, it seems only one of the duo has this insight.
Gerry and Stella Gilmore 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. And on secrets.
Every time they have a lift to themselves, they kiss between floors – it is just a little thing they do. Whenever they’re out walking, they hold hands in case she falls. 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. Stella likes to do crosswords and have an afternoon nap to compensate for her insomnia.
Gerry’s secret pleasure is of the liquid variety. 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 her site 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.
She’s been keeping her secret for decades. One that takes the story back to their home land of 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. Now, in Amsterdam, she is attempting to fulfil a promise even though that means she must set Gerry aside.
MacLaverty’s attention to detail as he dissects this marriage is evident. Nothing this couple does, however small, seems to escape attention from the packet of Werther’s Originals they share at take-off to the pleated paper wrapping the bar of hotel soap and the colour of spit after red wine.
It was an enjoyable read overall though two factors spoiled it rather. One was that MacLaverty’s unhurried pace and careful attention to each moment of the weekend, sometimes ran away with him. Towards the end of the book for example Gerry reflects on all the things about Stella that he admires. Chief of which is it seems the depth and breadth of her knowledge bank. Not enough to just tell us this, we have to have 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.
About the Author
Bernard MacLaverty comes from Northern Ireland. His novels include Lamb, Cal, Grace Notes (shortlisted for the 1997 Booker Prize) and The Anatomy School. He has written five books of short stories. Midwinter Break was published in 2017
Why I read this book
It was selected for one of the book clubs I’ve joined. The general reaction was very favourable.