Midwinter Break review: a portrait of love’s complexity
Bernard MacLaverty dissects a couple’s relationship during a trip to Amsterdam
Bernard MacLaverty: How do two fully grown human beings negotiate their love for each other, when they both love something else?
The world is full of long-married people, and literature almost devoid of them. Monogamy is hard to write. Perhaps when we pick up a book we are looking for “something different”, which makes reading a very minor form of adultery and writing, clearly, a case of sleeping around. The imagination is a dangerous thing, at least it is if you are using it properly.
Reading Midwinter Break is, at first, a question of behaving yourself. These characters are very married indeed. Stella and Gerry are on a four-day break in Amsterdam, they have been together a long time. She likes her hot water bottle, he likes a drop of whiskey. Their relationship runs along lines long familiar to both. They both enjoy words and banter; he loves music and architecture; she loves people, both strangers and those close. They plan to do the tourist things, the Rijksmuseum, Anne Frank’s house, a walk through the red-light district. They have coffees and pastries, robust stews, glasses of wine, naps and sex (“Sly bastard” he says, catching sight of himself afterwards in the bathroom mirror), they get along very well.
The relationship has moved beyond irritation (her frugality verges on the pathological, he can be obtuse) and they are unexpectedly sweet with each other. They hold hands crossing the road because Stella is fearful and prone to mistiming her run to the other side. Every time they have a lift to themselves, they kiss between floors – it is just a little thing they do. They are Darby and Joan, Barack and Michelle, Homer and Marge. You would think they were set fair for a companionable old age, but one of them is happily married and the other is not.
Bernard MacLaverty shows a couple out of their element, so everything they see is something to note and enjoy. The curiosity turns a tour of the city into something like a pilgrimage: at every place they experience insights both small and true. MacLaverty has always been a kind of high priest of the ordinary and the domestic. Tiny things absorb him: the pleated cardboard in which the hotel soap is wrapped, the minute sounds of a glass hitting a tabletop, the navy colour of spit when you brush your teeth after red wine. He knows the names of small objects that no one else thinks to name, like the “pledget” or wad of cotton wool in a little box for earrings. This close focus, the slow pleasure he takes in the quotidian, builds into a kind of dread of what cannot be spoken or known. MacLaverty’s ability to make the ordinary feel new is of a piece with Gerry’s resistance to knowing things, even, or especially, himself.
The couple moved away from Northern Ireland after Stella was injured in the Troubles. “If the end of human decency is the price of United Ireland, Gerry wanted nothing to do with it.” Stella’s experience of violence has set her on a spiritual path and, many years later, she realises how far this has brought her from her husband. They are separated by faith – not the sectarian, social separation of Protestant from Catholic, but a more profound estrangement, that between believer and cynic.
Religion as source
MacLaverty may be one of the last writers who can tell us what it is like to be a true Catholic. Religion, for Stella, is where all her goodness comes from, “Whatever kindness she had and whatever generosity she possessed came from those early sources”. Gerry’s rejection of it feels like the best of her, or the best of life itself, is also being spurned by him.
Gerry is an architect, his eye caught by shapes and textures, he is interested in the concrete as well as in the movement of light. But he remains literal-minded: “Who in their right mind could boast of humility?” He is suspicious of religion’s contradictions, even when they happen in the woman he loves so much.
Perhaps it was the violence they escaped that sent Gerry down the drinker’s path. This is a great book about alcohol, and alcohol’s best friend: denial. MacLaverty keeps careful tally of the bottles, the pints and the shorts, the creamy stouts and raw off-brand whiskies that constitute Gerry’s daily intake. The narrative, like his drinking, starts slow and builds inexorably to the blankness and sense of revelation that happens in the mind of the truly drunk. He is brilliant writing the slippage between drinks: how the decision to stop at the bottom of one glass becomes the decision to stop at the bottom of the next. He charts the shift from self-deception into general deception, and the excruciating distance between the drinker and a world that is not fooled, or interested in being fooled, by his claim not to be drunk.
It is a terrible, one-sided game that Gerry plays, but Stella’s faith is also, in its way, self-enclosed. This is not a novel about co-dependency. Stella is a remarkable person, she keeps herself tidy within the marriage, which is to say, separate. There is no anguished attempt to save Gerry from himself, no need to slake his thirst from the bottomless well of her love. Her emotions are not infantile but adult, and all the more difficult for that. How do two fully grown human beings negotiate their love for each other, when they both love something else?
Monogamy is not hard to write if you realise its contradictions. Besides, it is hard to know another person, and they are always changing – you never kiss the same person twice. Midwinter Break is a touching, hopeful portrait of love’s complexity, written by a master craftsman, from the fullness of his heart.
Anne Enright is the Laureate for Irish Fiction. She won the Man Booker Prize for The Gathering and her latest novel, The Green Road, won the Kerry Group Novel of the Year award