Sometimes a book sneaks up on you. Other times, a book might not appear to be the book you need. I heard a lot about Midwinter Break when it was first published in hardback in August 2017. Bernard MacLaverty I knew. Author of Cal and Lamb and Grace Notes and The Anatomy School, amongst others. I’d read enough to know he was quality but not enough to be quite bitten by the MacLaverty bug. I knew Midwinter Break was his first novel for something like 15 or 16 years. For whatever reason, though, I didn’t quite get to it in hardback. And then, in the end of year round-ups, there it was. And there. And there. And there. And there. Lots and lots of people saying, irrespective of whatever the big sellers were, irrespective of what made the Booker shortlist, irrespective of flash and brio and swagger and all of that, here was one of those books that does the business in a quiet and unaffected way. So I made time. And I’m glad I did.
This is the story of Gerry and Stella, an elderly Irish couple we meet as they prepare for a weekend away in Amsterdam. The narrative slips, softly, like a footfall in powdery snow, from one to the other and back again. This is a novel of many such subtle shifts. Long married, the two have their issues. He is a secret drinker, an alcoholic possibly, in that drink – the last, the current, the next – preoccupies him. She – she is preparing to leave him, furious at the man he has become, desperate to make a mark on the world in whatever time she has left. (But, know that the above explanation does a disservice to the book, the starkness of outline shines too bright a light on a story that vacillates, twisting and turning according to the moment – the two make love to each other twice over the course of the weekend, many years of tenderness concentrated in a gesture.) Their back and forth, which is comedic, dramatic and, finally, tragic, is so deft that you read, both caught up in the story and simultaneously in admiration of MacLaverty’s craft. The rightness of the words often greet you like a friend tipping his hat:
“She knew that the only way to improve the world, without patronising anyone, was to improve herself.”
Here’s Stella on Gerry:
“‘If you could only see yourself. You used to be so kind and considerate. What’s happened to you? You’re nothing but appetite.'”
“She deserved someone whose arm she could rely upon. What was love but a lifetime of conversations. And silences.”
And yet, there’s Gerry,
“Sitting beside Stella in this grey light seemed to Gerry such a privilege, such a wonderful thing to be doing, despite the nightmare…”
We could go on. There are many examples of beautiful writing here. If that floats your boat, you should make a beeline for this. And, of course, there is more to the book than simply an elderly couple who have a weekend in Amsterdam (it’s in the tradition of Jim Crace’s Being Dead or, you know, a William Trevor). We learn of their lives, the terrorist attack that drive them from Ireland to Scotland many years earlier, the waking tragedy of a day they both carry with them without really talking about, the lives they’ve had since, their child, over in Canada. It’s rich, is what we’re saying, like chocolate. And we’re sorry we missed it when it first appeared, sorry we didn’t rush at it like we now know we should’ve done.
Any Cop?: A book to add to the top of your list of the next paperbacks you intend to buy. An absolute solid gold five out of five spit in your eye classic.