Midwinter Break, by Bernard MacLaverty, Vintage, 256 pp, ISBN: 978-1784704919
Stella and Gerry Gilmore, both Ulster Catholics, are children of the 1940s; she’s working class and rural, he’s middle class and urban. They are educated in the 1950s, enter the workplace in the 1960s, marry in the 1970s as the Troubles get going, and produce a son, Michael. Not long after their son’s birth, disgusted with paramilitarism (especially its Catholic incarnation, which they loath on account of how it insists it is acting in their name; yes, these are a socially enlightened left-leaning non-partisan people) Stella and Gerry decamp to Glasgow, where they spend the rest of their lives, she teaching in a comprehensive (English Lit of course) and he lecturing at the university (architecture), where he is well-liked and even respected, despite his indefatigable drinking, for he is an alcoholic, with all that that implies (forgetfulness, inattentiveness to personal hygiene, readiness to lie if needing a drink, et cetera).
Midwinter Break actually starts long after all the above has happened, sometime on a melancholy January morning in the early twenty-first century in the Stella and Gerry’s nicely appointed Glasgow tenement flat. Now in late middle age, (or is it early old age?) comfortable, with disposable income, their son safely settled and married in Canada with one child, they are about to fly to Amsterdam for a winter break. Stella, having attended a teachers’ conference in the Dutch city sometime in the 1980s, is inclined, or so she says, to re-experience the city that she visited briefly and she has bought them tickets and booked a hotel for four nights as a Christmas present. And this is true but also not true, and over the four days of the Gilmores’ sojourn in Amsterdam, we discover everything.
We discover their past (as described above); their present, fractious on account of Gerry’s drinking (he is a cunning, high-functioning, tireless alcoholic) and his relentless and hurtful denigration of her deep religious faith; and their future, or Stella’s idea of what their future might look like at any rate, which has something to do with Amsterdam and which, at a stroke, would take her away from Gerry and his boozing and allow her to serve God in a meaningful and productive way.
But what is it they say about our fondest hopes? In the book’s coup de théâtre, Stella’s scheme comes awry (its undoing is one of the book’s glories: you really believe, as a reader, that this supremely competent ex-teacher’s plans collapse because of her failure to do the most rudimentary research), and that’s her and Gerry’s midwinter break done.
From here the narrative has nowhere else to go but back to the airport for the flight home to Glasgow. Unfortunately for our unhappy couple, though from the story’s point of view this is perfect, heavy snow has fallen. Their flight and many other flights are cancelled. And there we end, in the airport, Gerry half-cut of course, and with nothing resolved. Of course Gerry, having discovered what Stella had hoped she might do, which would have meant a new separate life for each of them, promises he’ll stop drinking. But whether he will we don’t know because that’s the kind of novel this is: it’s the kind that doesn’t do certainty (or neat conclusions tied up with a ribbon) but prefers to tell the necessary truth: human beings lead messy, chaotic, unresolved lives. End of.
As we age (I speak for myself here anyway) we get to know what kind of literature we care for. What I want are writers whose work presents me with characters who are frail, contrary, inadequate, self-serving, self-destructive, hopeless, hopeful, desperate, kindly, thoughtless, and all the other things that make people people, but without judgement, without prescription and in the round. And if a writer does all the above then I close their book thinking, “Yes, I know these characters as well as I know anyone living, and I like them in the way I like people in life, in a complex and qualified way. I know their faults and I know their strengths. I know their woes and I know their hopes. I know their truths and I know their lies. And most of all I know I am the same as them and they are the same as me: we are all leading similar lives of quiet desperation.”
This identification might be seen by some as troubling and disquieting; many readers will not wish to be reminded of their failures by the people they encounter on the page. Well indeed, but I am of the opinion that the only literature that counts is the literature that hurts, and this is literature that hurts, emphatically. It is also an unshowy, unfussy, emotionally truthful novel of the highest order and it comes highly recommended.
Carlo Gébler is a writer and regular contributor to the drb