Perhaps you can judge a book by its cover. In this case black-and-white with just a little blue on the front. The lettering for the title and author is unadorned caps. A couple in late middle age, both in overcoats and hats and the woman holding an umbrella against the sleet (the man stands a step or two back from her, and is unprotected), the pair of them isolated on a railed footbridge, with water beneath. The effect (computer edited?) is plain, quite stark. Quite zen. And more so on the reverse, where the same bridge reappears but minus the couple. Turn back to the front, and the woman and man now become the very human focus of this chilly scene.
Bernard MacLaverty’s Midwinter Break is the story of a retired couple, Stella and Gerry Gilmore. Originally from Northern Ireland, they have lived in Glasgow for most of their married life. In their late sixties, early seventies, they have one son, Michael, who lives with his French-Canadian wife and their small son in Toronto. Stella taught English to schoolchildren, while Gerry’s career was architecture. Still short of the sere and yellow, although it’s never far from their thoughts, they have active lives: Gerry judges and advises in his former capacity, Stella as she has always done organises their existence. They’re off on a short holiday, a January jaunt to Amsterdam, at snowdrop and crocus time. The hotel proves warm and comfortable, if a little bland, of a good standard they seem used to. The city outside is still in the grip of winter. Gerry’s eye responds as it will: ‘The skyline had the sharpness of an etching, each cornice and gable defined and different – scrolls, pinnacles and garlands precisely delineated. Like cut-outs. The branches of trees, now without leaves, were black against the evening sky. It wasn’t a sunset, just an ending of a cold, clear day – turning from blue, to yellow, to blush.’
Stella was here at a teachers’ conference long ago, and she has planned this return. It’s no sentimental journey for her. Her marriage, she knows, has reached an impasse. She has got her answer off-pat for those stuffy wine-fuelled socials back home, to which she dutifully accompanies Gerry. ‘If anybody asks me how long we’ve been married I just say, “For a protracted period.”’ Gerry has a drink problem, which is steadily worsening. And now Stella wants out. Round and round go her thoughts. ‘They could sell the tenement flat and buy two bijou flats. Hers would have to have a garden. And Gerry would have to get rid of all those books and CDs. Make his own dinners. Maybe he should look for a flat near a Marks & Spencer.’
Stella’s mainstay is her faith, her religion. Both Catholics by birth, Gerry can only make fun of her devotion. She has come back to Amsterdam to search out an order of lay nuns, observed by her on that original visit. Unusually those Beguines were also allowed to hold on to their independence, to come and go, even to marry if they chose to. ‘Can there be so many women in a similar position? Widows, the brutalised, women in need of a room of their own, women with leanings to a life of seriousness, women who wished to practise a life of devotion, a move away from the world towards sanctity.’
For years Stella has held on to the ideal. ‘She wanted to live the life of her Catholicism. This was where her kindness, if she had any, her generosity, her sense of justice had all come from. And her humility, she must not forget humility.’ Whether or not she can locate the community and join them and find her sanctuary (a Stella word) is one of the ‘story’ elements of the book, since fiction will always need a motor. Another, following alongside, is Gerry’s response, which is to sink more whisky and to be duplicitous about it.
It’s a hazardous subject, alcoholism. Even the great Simenon had difficulty in making it fully interesting. Those who drink to excess become wholly self-absorbed, not to say self-pitying – it can severely test a reader’s patience. Gerry, however, redeems himself into two ways. He feels shame at his indignity, and can be quite clear-eyed about himself. ‘Alcohol is the rubber tyres between me and the pier.’ He drinks for security; his own sanctuary lies at the bottom of a bottle. What also saves him is an indestructible sense of humour. Midwinter Break is in fact very funny as well as poignant. (I made pencil marks in the margins, of jokes to try to remember – such as the cartoon showing a shower handle with only two settings, ‘Too hot’ and ‘Too cold’.) The wry Stella can do better than return pun with pun. ‘I could never get the knack of whistling. And the nuns didn’t exactly encourage us. On the grounds that Our Lady never did it.’
With a half-bottle of whisky in each jacket pocket Gerry can think of himself as ‘nothing if not a well-balanced individual’. He seldom gets maudlin, and physical cruelty is beyond him. ‘Drink made everything easier – easier to feel, easier to find words. Some people he knew were transformed by it into monsters. They became vicious, spiteful and, worst of all, violent creatures. But not him. With a drink or two in him, he loved people, wanted to hug them, not hit them.’
It’s crunch time. The Gilmores have their future to sort out.
They visit the Rijksmuseum, they walk round the Anne Frank Huis (did you know it has a café?), they eat out several times, end up in an Irish pub stuffed with ‘paddy-whackery’. They bicker, they get lost, they catch sight of each other as a stranger might. ‘They made love’ (that’s as much as we get of their bedroom activities), twice during the four-day weekend. There is still quite a lot of love left in this relationship. ‘What was love but a lifetime of conversations. And silences. Knowing when to be silent. Above all, knowing when to laugh.’ But is there enough love? That is the question.
Amsterdam in midwinter seems existential. Even at the breakfast table in the hotel the couple can’t but be different. They help themselves to a bowl of cereal each – ‘…Gerry’s full to over flowing, Stella’s covering the bottom of her dish. Out of doors you feel the cold and damp. In your mind’s eye you’re THERE, with the pair of them. ‘The pavements looked like they were beginning to freeze – areas of grey sparkle – and shops exhaled warmth, creating a small local fog outside each doorway.’
Back at the hotel there’s a mishap in the en suite bathroom, when Gerry tumbles in the bath which has no mat. No bones broken, although there will be bruises a-plenty to come. They reflect on the incident a little later.
‘It’s a kinda crucial event.’
‘The first time you fall in the shower.’ ‘Don’t go morose on me, Gerry.’
‘The next header is into the grave.’
One positive thing which drink gives Gerry is fluidity of thought. And women, as Stella must know from her book-reading, were early on to the stream-of-consciousness technique. For both of them the past recurs, out of and back into the present tense – with astonishing dexterity on the author’s part. Something seen in passing, a turn of phrase that’s overheard, and alakazam the mind will revert: it locks on to either some crucial incident or else an entirely unexceptional moment which sums up a way of life, how things were done then. On the other side of the Troubles, when history would suddenly create itself in front of you, was a quieter life when they were young, in the ’50s and early ’60s, with customs that could only seem antique to the young of today with their digital brains.
But it’s the bad times in Ulster which have marked them. Both in small things and big. When eating out, for instance, ever since Belfast Gerry has ‘always sat in a chair facing the door’. Those memories of atrocities are experienced by them, still, through the body, in the blood and the bone. ‘A big bomb vibrates your diaphragm, makes your chest full, churns your stomach – your ears become strange.’ One particular and very shocking incident took them both to the limits of endurance, and continues to haunt them. The result these many years later is a refusal, an inability, to lie on the important matters. Their honesty was steeled by what they went through together in Belfast. They may sometimes be hard on each other now, but they are more unforgiving about themselves.
The climactic epiphany will occur at the snow-bound, chaotic airport, undergoing its own stress test thanks to the weather. Here, everything crystallises for the Glasgow-bound Gilmores – for Gerry, while searching for a bin to offload an empty, for Stella while (about as low as she goes) sitting on the toilet. It’s not the fault of middle-class professional types like them that the planet today is in such disorder, but Stella won’t shrug off her responsibilities. ‘She knew that the only way to improve the world, without patronising anyone, was to improve herself. To be the receptacle for love, yet not to feel herself worthy of it.’ Gerry’s quizzings and put-downs about Catholicism have only confirmed her resolve. ‘She wanted a church which was rational, kind, loving, ritualistic, Christ centred. One that would eventually involve women. Although she knew there was no hope of that in her lifetime.’
As a schoolboy with a relish for geometry, Gerry had come upon architecture by accident, taking summer work in a practice office. He surely got the bug. ‘If it was about anything, architecture was about shedding light.’ In an ideal world – and a peaceful Northern Ireland – Gerry might have put up buildings to last hundreds of years, to lift and inspire and ennoble his fellow men and women. But after working in Belfast on (ironically) some of a slew of new church commissions, in the wake of Vatican Two, he’d had to acknowledge his limitations. No Le Corbusier (an idol) he.
‘He knew he himself was in League Division Two. Maybe, on a bad day, League Division Three.‘ And the consequence? Gerry had ended up a university teacher. One who drank too much.’ To give himself Dutch courage.
Midwinter Break is consummately fine fiction. I was in awe while reading it. Of the simplicity which isn’t. Many short abrupt sentences, no show-off language. Every word, the placing of every comma and dash, just so. Here is a model to anyone wanting to write. But the catch is that only maturity can produce it. (I was reminded of Picasso’s thinking, concerning the almost-nothing-there of his later etchings, that it took a lifetime to learn to draw ‘as a child’, to put all his experience into the motion of the crayon or pencil, one single owing line.)
Bernard MacLaverty writes as well about women as about men – can make you laugh and bring you to the verge of tears – stitch life as the fusion of dull reality and daydreams and recall that it is from moment to moment. His subject couldn’t be bigger. There are important questions to be answered. For Stella, and for Gerry, and for all of us. How can we best live our lives? How can we live good lives? Sixteen years we’ve been waiting for another MacLaverty novel. It’s here and, let me report, it’s a triumph.