Book ReviewsIrish authors

Midwinter Break by Bernard MacLaverty – Deceived in Marriage

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.

Cover of Midwinter Break by Bernard MacLaverty

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.

Hidden Lives

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.


What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

20 thoughts on “Midwinter Break by Bernard MacLaverty – Deceived in Marriage

  • I actually really loved this one but I understand why certain aspects may not have worked for you. His earlier novels, Lamb and Grace Notes in particular are really impressive.

  • It’s a pity about the aspects that didn’t work for you as (those aside) it sounds like a nuanced examination of a failing marriage. What did the other members of your book group think about it? Did they feel the same way about the reasoning behind Stella’s actions?

    • We had quite a debate about her reasoning and how she was quite naive in thinking that she could just turn up at the house and join. They have very long waiting lists it seems. I’d never heard of the establishment but the others had …

  • See, now I want to know why all the people in your book club found this novel favorable. Did you try to persuade them of the flaws?

    • We got side tracked into a discussion about the plan to take up residence in that religious community ….

      • Speaking of religion, I’m reading a new book in which this producer has been sent to work for a show that is notoriously where they send middle aged women to “producer death”: a religion and gardening show. I think it sounds peaceful!

        • Some of the presenters from the past are making a new career for themselves over here. Mary Berry is more on TV now than she was in her younger days

        • Mary Berry is so lovely. “Really special,” as she might say. 😊

  • Oh dear, I’m afraid that endless list would probably have inspired me to throw the book at the wall. Another of those “where was the editor?” situations…

  • I keep seeing great reviews of MacLaverty, I think I would like his writing.

    • He has the ability to make dialogue sound completely natural which is a tremendous skill

  • “Gerry thinks they’re going to do the usual tourist activities.” Obviously Gerry had never read McEwan’s ‘Amsterdam’ … 🙂 🙂

    • Gerry hasn’t much time in between sips to do any kind of reading

  • I enjoyed your review of this book. I have read several books during the past couple of years where the author starts to describe something and then doesn’t know when to stop. It has irritated me to no end. I prefer more concise writing when it comes to descriptions. It’s as thought there are too many good descriptive phrases going through their mind and they can’t choose so they use all of them. 🙂

    • Yep I have found that too – as if they are too much in love with the sound of their own voice

  • I have this one sitting on my shelves and was hoping for some of that pared back, clean prose that Irish writers so often excel at which doesn’t chime with Gerry’s list at all. That and the perennial attraction of Amsterdam.

  • This is a great review. I’ve been in two minds about reading this book because I read a really damning review at Tony’s blog. I think I will read it at some point (I loved MacLaverty’s Cal when I read it last year) but now I have a better idea of what to expect.

    • I hadn’t seen Tony’s review – must go and look at that now.


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