Meet Stella and Gerry Gilmore, the couple at the center of Bernard MacLaverty’s new novel, “Midwinter Break.” Originally from the north of Ireland, they have lived much of their adult lives in Scotland. They are empty-nesters. Their only child, Michael, has moved to Canada and started his own family. Michael’s absence — along with the traumatic events that accompanied his birth — have cast a shadow over the Gilmores’ marriage, a shadow they have never fully reckoned with. During the course of this sure-handed and captivating novel, they will finally be forced to do so.
Stella is a retired teacher and practicing Catholic who is searching for a way of living “a more devout life.” With her remaining years, she wants to “make a contribution, however small” to the world. The problem is that she’s not sure whether Gerry will be a part of this final act. A former architect and university professor, Gerry drinks too much and is given to making punning quips as a means of remaining emotionally disengaged from his life.
Gerry also mocks her faith, especially when he is inebriated. She has booked a long weekend in Amsterdam for them, in part, to decide whether there is a viable life for her outside of their marriage. Ostensibly a romantic getaway, the trip is actually an opportunity for Stella to visit the Begijnhof, one of the oldest enclosed courtyards in Amsterdam, which was once home to the Beguines, “a Catholic sisterhood who lived alone as nuns, but without vows.” Stella has aspirations of taking up residence there, but she learns that it’s not so simple. She can’t just leave Gerry and move into a life of piety and good works in one of the most desirable spots in Amsterdam.
MacLaverty’s novel is relatively short (240 pages), but it feels like a more expansive work because of its unhurried pace and careful attention to each moment of the Gilmores’ sojourn. (If you can, read it in real time, over three or four days, to give yourself a midsummer break from your own routine.) We accompany this couple not only to the Anne Frank House and the Rijksmuseum, but also into their deepest selves. It is an intimate book that makes wonderful use of the close third person. Here’s a passage in which Stella, remembering the early days of their courtship, conflates the stones from a beach with the illusions of falling in love:
“She was always on the lookout for stones. Only white perfect ones would make her stoop. . . . When they were wet and glistening they seemed special but she knew that when they dried out maybe some yellow or grey would creep into their colour. The perfect ones would end up in a glass bowl on her table. It was their simplicity she found so attractive.”
A restrained simplicity is also the stylistic hallmark of this novel. MacLaverty’s only missteps are his occasionally clumsy and largely unnecessary segues into flashbacks. The reader doesn’t need the hand-holding to jump into the past that still haunts Gerry and Stella. Those events, parceled out slowly in the narrative, are tied to the “Troubles” of the late 20th century: the murders and bombings that made daily life in Belfast and elsewhere in Northern Ireland so frightening.
This is familiar terrain for MacLaverty, whose 1983 novel “Cal” told the story of a terrorist accomplice who falls in love with a victim’s wife. A violent encounter is what prompts Gerry and Stella to move to Scotland; it is also one of the sources of their marital difficulties. Gerry’s drinking and Stella’s desire to live a life of faith are their respective means of coping with these experiences. MacLaverty manages to dramatize this without reducing his protagonists to mere casualties.
A carefully assembled structure of symbols and allusions gives “Midwinter Break” resonance and depth. The Netherlands was the birthplace of King William III (a.k.a. William of Orange), who deposed the Catholic King James II in the Glorious Revolution. The novel’s title refers to Christina Rossetti’s poem “In the Bleak Midwinter,” which imagines the nativity in a snowy northern landscape. And the snow that falls late in the book calls to mind James Joyce’s “The Dead,” in which a husband discovers a passionate secret his wife has kept from him.
Contemplating the mysteries that lie at the heart of every marriage, Stella thinks, “Nobody could peer into a relationship — even for a day or two — and come away with the truth.” It’s a measure of MacLaverty’s achievement here that he has done exactly that.
Jon Michaud is a novelist and the head librarian at the Center for Fiction.
By Bernard MacLaverty
W.W. Norton. 243 pp. $24.95