It takes a brilliant writer indeed to spin the straw of everyday life into gold, and Bernard MacLaverty is such a writer. After reading his latest, Midwinter Break, you won’t wonder why he was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize for his 1997 novel, Grace Notes. This tale of two ordinary pensioners satisfies in ways that a really good book should: The characters are memorable, the writing is luminous and you never want it to end.
Did I say the couple in the story is ordinary? They are and they aren’t. There’s Gerry Gilmore, who was an architect, and his wife, Stella, a former schoolteacher. They live in Glasgow, Scotland, and when the book opens they’re preparing to go on a four-day winter vacation to Amsterdam. Stella is a font of goodness: interested, quietly intelligent, brimful of love and compassion. Gerry is smart and a bit stodgy. He’s funny and loves his wife. He’s also an alcoholic. One of the reasons they’re going to Amsterdam is for Stella to figure out whether she can keep on living with him. It’s a midwinter break in more ways than one.
MacLaverty is superb when it comes to revealing the minutiae of a long-married couple’s life: Stella remembering to put in her eye drops to ease her dry eyes; their custom of chastely kissing in elevators; their bedtime rituals; Gerry thinking up ways to hide how much he’s drinking, even though the perceptive Stella knows the truth. MacLaverty layers on these particulars until we come to deeply know these people. The reader begins to think, I hope nothing happens that’ll make me not love them! Nothing does, but the reader does learn of the primal wound that knocked this relationship just a bit askew. It happened early in their marriage, was unforgivably atrocious and not in any way their fault. Yet it may have set Gerry to his drinking problem and certainly troubled Stella’s strong Catholic faith.
Midwinter Break is a slim book, which proves you don’t have to write a Middlemarch-esque doorstopper to produce a masterpiece. This quietly passionate, knowing novel is bound to be read and savored for years to come.