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Vivid Perspectives: On Bernard MacLaverty’s Midwinter Break
Emma Cummins , August 26th, 2018 10:27

Emma Cummins explores aesthetic beauty and emotional pain in Bernard MacLaverty’s award-winning novel about an elderly Northern Irish couple. What lies beneath the banter?

“In the bathroom Stella was getting ready for bed. Gerry had left the shaving mirror at the magnifying face and she was examining her eyebrows.”

The opening lines of Midwinter Break set the tone for a beautiful novel about love, for better or worse, between an elderly couple. Stella looks at her reflection close up, her self-image shaped by the way her husband has left the mirror. What a powerful portrait. So much between the lines. From the first sentences of Midwinter Break you know you’re in the hands of a master.

Bernard MacLaverty is an unshowy writer, giving us everyday life on the page. There’s a lovely plainness to his prose, a trust that his characters will speak for themselves, show themselves through behaviour. Look again at those openings lines. The words are deceptively simple – they bely the depth of the image.

“Sentences are factual, but paragraphs are emotional,” said Gertrude Stein. In Midwinter Break, emotion sparks between the sentences. The voltage increasing as we turn the pages and get to know the couple.

Both Gerry and Stella are from Northern Ireland but moved to Glasgow at the height of The Troubles. Long married and retired, they have one son, living abroad in Canada with their grandchild. In the book, the couple take a “midwinter break” to Amsterdam, visiting museums and wandering the city, arm in arm.

The novel is written in close third person, moving seamlessly between Gerry and Stella’s perspectives. Gerry, an architect, is highly attuned to the scale of things. In the airport, he sees his wife from afar: “It was a huge concourse and she looked tiny at the far side of it. Architecture was about the size of things compared to the human.”

Stella, by contrast, is more drawn to nature and small details. Like Gerry, she has an eye for beauty, but her gaze is often tinged with longing and regret. At one point, she’s watching a snowstorm through a window: “Stella found herself isolating one particular snowflake – a small one – and watching its progress. Lifting, floating, eddying upwards, sinking among the others.”

“We don't see things as they are, we see them as we are,” said Anaïs Nin. MacLaverty understands this, conveys it beautifully. In the Rijksmuseum, Gerry shows Stella a Rembrandt painting, The Jewish Bride. “Two figures, a man and a woman on the edge of intimacy, or perhaps just after ... Hands. Hands everywhere. A painting about touch.”

Stella admires the painting, the “sumptuous clothes,” but her feet ache. Shortly after seeing The Jewish Bride, she signals to Gerry that she’s going to have a rest. Sitting down on a sofa, Stella’s gaze is drawn to an image of an old woman reading, alone.

*

Midwinter Break is one of the UK’s most-loved novels in recent years. It won Novel of the Year at the Irish Book Awards in 2017 and last month MacLaverty was voted Writer of the Year at the Scottish Culture Awards (he lives in Glasgow but he’s from Northern Ireland). The US paperback comes out this September and a Film 4 adaptation is planned, with John Crowley, who made the Oscar-nominated Brooklyn, signed up to direct it.

I was “late to this” novel (to use social media speak) but it doesn’t matter. There’s no right time to read a book. Whether you read Midwinter Break in a summer heatwave or a winter cold snap, whether you buy it today or ten years from now, it’s an enriching, life-enhancing story. A book to read before you die. A novel that will stand the test of time because it’s so subtly brilliant.

For me, much of the brilliance comes from the shifts in perspective between Gerry and Stella, the different ways they view the world. The dynamic between the couple is also painted beautifully.

In Amsterdam, the hotel room works much like their bathroom mirror at home, magnifying aspects of themselves and each other. In the small space, Gerry sees his wife on bended knees by the bed. “At first he thought she’d dropped an earring or something – then, when he looked at her hands, he realised she was praying … At home they went to bed at different times … He didn’t know she was still doing this.”

In Glasgow, Gerry usually waits until he hears the bedroom door close before having his nightcap (or two, or three) while in Amsterdam, he prepares his whiskey and water in the hotel bathroom, coughing to cover “the snap of the screw-cap”.

The hotel room accentuates differences but it also does the opposite, bringing the couple physically closer and more capable of candour. After making love, Stella says: “Why do I take the notion more often when we’re away? … Can you guess?” “No,” says Gerry. “Because I don’t have to think of dinners.”

Midwinter Break is full of gentle humour like this. Gerry and Stella don’t take themselves too seriously, they make fun of each other, have the craic. I had a wee laugh at Ailment Hour, the daily slot when the couple lament their ageing bodies, and a less comfortable laugh when Gerry announces: “I’m having a drink … To make me feel like Frank Sinatra.”

There is so much love and tenderness in Midwinter Break but the relationship is brittle. Emotional tension tight beneath the small talk, the in-jokes, the distinctly Irish banter.

“Whatever is felt upon the page without being specifically named there – that, one might say, is created,” wrote Willa Cather. Throughout Midwinter Break, there’s a sense of things unsaid. Many things – repressed trauma from The Troubles, the shame of alcoholism, good old Catholic guilt…

Some of the scenes I was most moved by involved Gerry drinking alone, his mind wild with memory, flashing back to the bombs and violence of 1970s Belfast. Both Gerry and Stella have a tendency to ruminate when they’re alone – don’t we all? – and what’s wonderful about MacLaverty’s writing is how it reflects the particular emotional weather of each character. In Gerry’s mind, the prose becomes short, sharp, jagged as lightning while Stella’s musings have a more undulating quality, scattered clouds that float and disappear.

Often, emotional pain surfaces when the characters stop. Before an afternoon nap or sipping whiskey after dark. In these moments of stillness, MacLaverty brings us closer to Gerry and Stella’s inner lives, the language sometimes verging on stream of consciousness. But it rarely lasts long. A few paragraphs or short pages and we’re back in the everyday. Like we’ve been dipped, briefly, into someone else’s soul.

*

In Midwinter Break, stillness triggers memories but can also bring forth beauty. When the characters stop, they notice things, joyful things, in the city around them. Walking back to the hotel one evening, “Stella stopped, pulled Gerry back. Look,” she says, and he follows her gaze to see two horses standing under lamplight.

The couple move towards the “beautiful creatures,” one chestnut, one spotted grey, and Stella says: “This is magic. There’s something so saintly about them … Look at the veins, Gerry. Like so many rivers.”

It’s such a lovely scene, one of the most memorable in the book. Reading it, I recalled a line from Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself: “Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems.”

In Midwinter Break, there’s a sense MacLaverty wants to show us what surfaces when we stop. What lies beneath – the pain and the beauty. The novel is charged with a secret poetry that sparks through the prose. When the characters stop, when the banter subsides, there are moments of transcendence that flash and fade like unexpected fireworks. And it’s those little sparks, those beautiful blips, that make the book so special.

“All things have their vivid aspects, even the uninteresting or ugly; one must only want to see,” wrote Hermann Hesse in his book of essays, My Belief. Hesse believes that life is full of “little joys” and they come from slowing down, from “the opening of the eyes.”

In Midwinter Break, two people approaching their final years show us what’s important in life. Love. Laughter. How beauty and joy persist through the pain. In this gentle, life-affirming novel, MacLaverty reminds us of the quiet poetry that surfaces when we stop and simply look:

“The skyline had the sharpness of an etching, each cornice and gable defined and different – scrolls, pinnacles and garlands precisely delineated. Like cut-outs. The branches of trees, now without leaves, were black against the evening sky. It wasn’t a sunset, just an ending of a cold, clear day – turning from blue, to yellow, to blush.”

Midwinter Break by Bernard MacLaverty is published by Vintage

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