Midwinter Break by Bernard MacLaverty
Hailing from Belfast, MacLaverty now lives in Glasgow, having spent the majority of his life in Scotland, first as a teacher, including a spell in the Hebrides, and afterwards living by his writing on the mainland. As a young man at Queen’s College, where MacLaverty was working in the biology department, he joined a writing group with Seamus Heaney, Derek Mahon and Michael Longley. There his proferred poems were soundly rejected (by Heaney) although his short stories were lauded.
Avid readers of MacLaverty have been waiting for a new book since 2013, when many of his stories were republished in a collection. Previous to that there was Matters of Life and Death in 2006, other collections of stories and four novels, including Lamb, and Cal, both of which were filmed (the former with Liam Neeson and the latter with Helen Mirren). Whilst Cal and Lamb both provide contemporaneous accounts of the politics and violence of the Troubles, which MacLaverty lived through, Midwinter Break deals with the aftermath.
During the early years of their marriage, the central characters, Gerry and Stella were indirectly involved in bombings and shootings. He always sought solace in the bottom of a glass whilst she turned to her religion. Now that they are retired each can give full attention to these crutches.
A long weekend in Amsterdam enables each an opportunity to indulge themselves. Gerry drinks most of a bottle of duty free whisky on their first night allowing Stella to rise the following morning without waking him. She makes her way to visit a religious order. Unfortunately Stella’s contact will not be available until Monday morning so she and Gerry have an uninterrupted Saturday and Sunday. For Gerry this means he can have a fat-laden cooked breakfast in the hotel whilst Stella makes do with a croissant and jam in a café.
There is time to visit art galleries and the red light area. MacLaverty draws parallels between the two experiences in a slightly clumsily manner. Both are perceived framed – the women behind their windows, the paintings also orientated as landscape or portrait. Perhaps MacLaverty is suggesting that both the women painted by Vermeer and the present day prostitutes are victims of economic deals.
But Gerry is not a philistine. He has made a career as an architect and loves classical music. Stella, who was a teacher, is no saint. Both are selfish in their ways. Both are loving and compassionate too.
It is important and moving to find elderly people as protagonists in novels. Their habits are irritating. Their bodies are failing. One needs artificial eye drops to replace the essential tearing function of the eye. One snores. Neither has a beautiful body. Both make love with each other.
All couples must face these sorts of issues if they want to stick together until ‘death us do part’. An important question is, did the personal horrors that afflicted Gerry and Stella during the Troubles lead to their current unhappiness? I am not sure what MacLaverty would say in answer to that.
But, in an interview with the Guardian in 2013, he did explain that in 1975, already a father of four children, he said to himself, ‘Why do I have to stay here? I can teach anywhere’.
Who would condemn him for leaving his motherland? For taking his wife and children to a safe island off the coast of Scotland? For writing wonderful books, which became films and gave him an entry into the life of the arts in Edinburgh and Glasgow.
Many writers in the North found safe havens in small cottages in remote areas. Many, like Seamus Heaney, are accused of watering down politics or hiding, in for example, the bog poems, behind ambiguity and metaphor. It may be that MacLaverty is saluting the late Irish poet, when, at the end of Midwinter Break he includes a meditation on bog people.
Heaney, S. North. London: Faber & Faber. 1975.
MacLaverty, B. Cal. Jonathan Cape. 1983.
— Collected Stories Vintage. 2013.
— Lamb. Penguin. 1980/
— Matters of Life and Death. Norton. 2006.
—Midwinter Break. Jonathan Cape. 2017.
A version of this review was first published on 26th August 2017 in the Weekend section (page 37) of the Irish Examiner.