Midwinter Break: A Novel
The award-winning Irish novelist Bernard MacLaverty is a master at revealing a universe in just a few words. In his new novel Midwinter Break, the retired Irish architect (and lapsed Catholic) Gerry Gilmore recalls walking home with his wife, Stella, the previous Christmas after she had served as a Eucharistic minister:
“‘It’s a kind of honour, I suppose.’ Gerry squeezed her hand with his elbow. ‘I’m proud of you even though I don’t believe a word of it.’
“‘Don’t say another thing, Gerry. It’s Christmas and I feel good.’
“The streets were lined with parked cars, their tops and windscreens whitened with frost. Some people had pinioned newspapers beneath their wipers . . .
“‘It’s really strange stuff, frost,’ Gerry said. ‘It falls straight down, like rain—like the opposite of shadow—white, not black.’
“‘I wouldn’t like to argue.’ “
The reader is hardly surprised that Stella, a retired teacher, is thinking of ending their four-decade marriage. Nor is the reader surprised that Gerry doesn’t realize.
The problem with such understated writing, however, is that MacLaverty leaves too many spaces between the lines. Despite deep dives into both of their points of view, ultimately it’s hard to care about Gerry and Stella.
Indeed, Midwinter Break is definitely a character-driven novel. Not much in the way of plot ostensibly happens during its four-day span, while the Gilmores spend a long weekend in Amsterdam.
They visit the Anne Frank House. They eat a couple of meals at an Irish pub. Gerry, as always, secretly drinks too much. Stella applies to join the city’s Beguine community—a small, semi-monastic order of Christian lay women, whose roots date back to the 12th century.
Little gems of scenes show the strength of their long marriage and of
Gerry’s love. After Stella suffers a humiliating moment at the Anne Frank House, she lets Gerry hold her briefly. He tells her: “I love you more than Coco Pops.”
Yet Gerry is oddly incurious when Stella disappears on their first morning and apparently lies about her intentions. After it slips out that she had visited the Beguine house a few hours earlier, she brushes off his question: “My enquiry was spiritual—and would be of little interest to you.”
Wouldn’t such a devoted husband ask another question or two?
Even worse, it’s not clear why Gerry drinks so much. Did he turn to booze after he, Stella, and their son were caught up in the horrors of Bloody Friday, the Irish Republican Army bombings in Belfast in 1972? Was it a replacement of sorts when he quit smoking?
Surely MacLaverty—a veteran whose novel Grace Notes was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize in 1998—is too accomplished a writer to dismiss Gerry’s alcoholism as a standard Irish trait that needs no further explanation.
Stella, meanwhile, seems whiny. She’s always tired. She insists that Gerry respect her Catholic faith—fair enough—but outright refuses when he asks her to similarly respect his right to reject religion:
Her faith, Stella tells Gerry, is “‘what I am and you must respect me for it, not mock me.’
“‘But you must allow me my truth,’ said Gerry. ‘The truth.’
“’You’re doing it again. Dismissing me,’ she said.”
And then she walks away—dismissing Gerry.
Still, MacLaverty is such a good craftsman that his novels are worth reading for the writing alone. There are stunning, Joycean passages of streams-of-consciousness, such as when Stella’s thoughts segue from her childhood to Bloody Friday to her current wait at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport:
“She loved the dark smell [of fresh tar]. It got on her hands and, of course, she wiped her hands on what she was wearing, which was not very much, the day was such as scorcher. ‘How dare you come in here in that state,’ her mother had shouted, ‘those things are going straight to the bin. That tar would get on everything in the wash.’ William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying—you couldn’t make it up. A strange and great book, which she’d just reread. Not to be confused with Brian Faulkner—the prime minister of the time.”
Midwinter Break is not Faulkner. But this novel, MacLaverty’s tenth work of fiction, masterfully combines his frequent themes of faith, Irish political history, and the complexities of love.