Book review: Midwinter Break

I read Cal, Bernard MacLaverty‘s second novel, when it emerged back in 1983 drawn by the title of the work and the early literary development of an understanding of what Pete McCarthy later came to describe as the philosophy of never passing a bar which has your name on it (itself a rare, but not completely abstract, event for me; the inn in the wonderfully-named Perthshire village of Calvine having passed up the opportunity, calling itself the Struan Arms instead – something missed there, I feel).

Back then, I immediately went on and picked up Lamb, MacLaverty’s similarly sparsely-titled debut work from 1980, and enjoyed the staccato, if somewhat bleak, prose. But there’s not been a lot to go on since – Midwinter Break, released in August this year, is MacLaverty’s first novel for 16 years and only his fourth in a career spanning 35 years (there have also been short stories). Both Lamb and Cal were short novels, and Midwinter Break‘s trees-cut-down-per-volume-sold ratio is also going to be pretty low.

MacLaverty’s tale follows Stella and Gerry, a retired couple from Belfast now exiled in Glasgow, taking a long weekend in Amsterdam. From the outset, the setting is clear: a couple who, while still rubbing along together pretty well, nevertheless find habits and foibles in the other grating and a source of grit in the gearbox of the relationship. For Stella, it is Gerry’s excessive whiskey drinking and his continual bantering and search for humour; for Gerry, it is Stella’s contrasting sense of propriety, organisation and orderliness, perhaps, stemming from her religious faith which plays a major part in the development of the novel and about which Gerry is also notably, and openly, sceptical. They bicker; but they also laugh and share closeness and intimacy. They talk but, substantially, only about superficial things. In short, they are absolutely normal.

As MacLaverty develops his theme, it becomes clear that this midwinter break could see a break in their relationship. Or, just perhaps, it could also see a break in the routine to which they have become accustomed and which might, alternatively, see each of them re-commit to the relationship. This is not just a novel about how people grow old together and stay together – Stella and Gerry have a shared past which gives them a strong bond and foundation – but how even long, and strong, relationships require to be refreshed if they are to remain that way.

Told alternately by following each character on their travels through Amsterdam and then extensively through dialogue in their scenes together, and with other characters being largely incidental, MacLaverty forces a relentless focus on the two protagonists. This is not implemented in a claustrophobic way but in one which heightens the reader’s awareness of the state of their relationship and maximises our sympathy for each. MacLaverty draws gentle, extremely sensitive and well-rounded portraits of both Gerry and Stella, presenting each of them in an even, non-judgmental way. To accomplish that, he needs to be able to write women characters and it is to his credit as an author that Stella in particular has real voice and resonance. The dialogue is convincingly accurate, as it needs to be given its importance to the structure of the novel, with the exception of a couple of places in which Stella’s annoyance at Gerry’s banter was less apparent than it ought to have been given her subsequent reactions.

This is a slow-paced novel and some readers will find its gentle tone and lack of action – essentially an ordinary, older couple pottering around a foreign city looking for inspiration – too gentle and too one-paced. Gerry and Stella do not seek to confront a consciously failing relationship by argumentatively thrashing things out in an anonymous hotel room; their being in Amsterdam is not to undertake a ‘fix or bust’ resolution although it is clear that at least one of them is grasping for a better outcome. This is real life, in which the minutiae of characters successfully making their way through their day are allowed to take centre stage.

In holding up successful long-term relationships as ones in which people consciously take the steps to (re-)learn to communicate properly, and with honesty, MacLaverty has done a favour to all of us still looking for that key. There might be nothing particularly new in that – but, it seems, such a lesson is in need of being continually re-learned.

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