Exploring the deep fault lines in a marriage

by John Boland

Fiction: Midwinter Break, Bernard MacLaverty, Jonathan Cape, pbk, 256 pages, €16.49

Booker-nominated Belfast-born author Bernard MacLaverty returns after a 16-year hiatus with a subtle novel about an older couple trying to deal with a marital crisis.

Bernard MacLaverty is not a prolific novelist. Fourteen years elapsed between Cal in 1983 and Grace Notes in 1997 and a further 16 between The Anatomy School in 2001 and this new book, although throughout the decades he has also published five collections of short stories.

These nuanced and subtle stories have rightly been acclaimed by devotees of the short form, and the novels have been admired, too (Grace Notes was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize), but in general, his has been a low-key career, almost beneath the radar, with little in the way of interviews, profiles or attention-grabbing encomiums.

Perhaps that’s a consequence of decisions made in his thirties. Born and educated in Belfast, MacLaverty left with his wife and children for Scotland in 1975 at the height of the Troubles and has remained there ever since. So he has never been part of the Irish, or even Northern Irish, literary scene – indeed, all his books are the product of his voluntary exile.

His two earliest novels were filmed: Cal in 1984, with John Lynch and Helen Mirren as doomed lovers across the sectarian divide, and his 1980 book Lamb a year later with Liam Neeson as a religious Brother trying to do what’s right for a troubled boy. Both were worthy adaptations, though they never reached wide audiences and have hardly ever been re-screened.

Midwinter Break may also remind you of movies, specifically Le Week-End (2013), in which Jim Broadbent and Lindsay Duncan try to revive their lengthy but staid marriage with a trip to Paris, and 45 Years (2015), in which Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay also face a marital crisis after decades together.

In MacLaverty’s novel, Amsterdam rather than Paris is the setting, but here again a foreign locale is used as a way of focusing on the crisis that confronts a couple whose seemingly happy marriage has gradually developed serious, perhaps fatal, fault lines.

Seventy-something middle-class Catholics Gerry and Stella Gilmore are from Belfast, though (like the author) they left it in the 1970s for a less stressful life in Scotland, where Gerry has practised as an architect and Stella has been a school teacher. They’re nice people and are good to each other, with a contented sex life and a son they both love who’s married in Canada.

Slowly, though, we come to know the couple better. Gerry’s fondness for a solitary tipple doesn’t seem so alarming at first, even when he’s slipping out of bed to have a furtive shot of whiskey in their hotel bathroom, and he justifies it by reasoning “How could he avoid drinking on his own when Stella hardly drank at all?”

But the full extent of his addiction is slowly revealed to the reader, though Stella has been aware of his secretive intake for decades and thinks him a deluded alcoholic.

For this and other reasons, she’s seeking a different kind of existence. “I’m tired of living the way we do”, she tells Gerry. “I want to live a more devout life.”

And with this in mind, she visits an Amsterdam religious retreat for women where she has heard they consider late-life applicants for permanent residency. However, she learns to her dismay that they can’t oblige her.

She had set her mind on this course of action because, as she tells Gerry, “miracles come in all sizes. I should know”. We later learn the meaning of those last three words when it’s revealed that, during the 1970s in Belfast, she had been caught in crossfire and a bullet had passed through her stomach, narrowly missing her unborn baby.

Indeed, the sectarian strife and violence that had caused them to flee their country four ­decades earlier remain all too vividly in their minds, Gerry recalling why they left: “It didn’t seem all that long ago that the three Scottish soldiers had been brutally murdered. Young fellas, off duty, having a drink in a Belfast pub when they’d been enticed by girls to a non-existent party.

“If the end of human decency is the price of a United Ireland, Gerry wanted nothing to do with it… Killing people left, right and centre. Whatever their politics, whatever their persuasion.”

But if Northern Ireland was a place that had been “born in convulsions of sectarian hatred”, at least he always had Stella, and even at this late stage in his life “it never ceased to amaze him the thrill he got at seeing her” – though, in his alcohol-assisted state of denial, he’s not yet fully aware of her unhappiness or of her resolve concerning their marriage.

By the end, though, he becomes aware. The book concludes at Schiphol airport where flights have been delayed by foul weather. Gerry is by now is drinking too much and too noticeably to be ignored and Stella can’t contain her anger. “You used to be so kind and considerate,” she tells him. “What’s happened to you?”

What has happened to Gerry, and to Stella, too, is the subject of a novel written with such subtlety and finesse you’re hardly aware of the artifice that enabled you to get inside the minds of this loving, unhappy couple.

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