Midwinter Marriage

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Across his wide later range his filmic gift of dialogue and scene-setting is constant. His is a voice that is so distinctively from here. His stories stretching back down the years can be poignant and heart breaking but are also at times distinctive of a time and place and often funny. He has not lost the true sense of who he is; his accent; his warmth; his sincerity. It would have been easy for MacLaverty to have made both characters unlikeable. Instead, they are subtly drawn, sharing many good qualities as well as flaws… Midwinter Break also explores love, loss and faith, and it at times achingly sad.

Subtly constructed and deceptively delivered, this neat novel chronicles a brief interlude, a midwinter city break in Amsterdam, in the lives of retired couple Stella and Gerry… The narrative power builds slowly, steadily and surely including, towards the end, a brilliant summation of a life. Midwinter Break is a minor miracle of a book. Brilliantly crafted.

Find your local bookstore at booksellers. Our Lists. Hi-Res Cover. An intense exploration of love and uncertainty when a long-married couple take a midwinter break in Amsterdam. As Beth and Landry dance at the ball, Guy's carriage approaches through the snow. Beth is about to confront her past.

Log In. My Account. Remember to clear the cache and close the browser window. Search For:. Advanced Search. Select an Action. Stanley, Sarah. Publication Information:. Physical Description:. It was rather bleak as they examine their crutches in detail and, frankly, a little off-putting to me. Still it is beautifully written and such an accurate portrayal of a marriage and compromises made.

It really makes you wonder how you will spend the last part of your life and what is truly important. Thanks to Net Galley for a copy of this book in exchange for a review. Gerry and Stella are married a long time. They each have their own problem. They each deal with it in their own way. They bounce of each other. Their humour is superb.

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Situations are very recognizable. There's no escape in flight. They love each other deeply. They need each other. Gerry is a retired architect and lecturer. His wife Stella used to be a teacher. Like the author himself, they are Irish but have lived for a long time in Glasgow. Their marriage is a long-lived one and, to all appearances, they are close and in love. Yet, their relationship is growing hollow, drained by Gerry's alcoholism and Stella's increasing exasperation at his constant criticism of her committed Catholic faith.

Things come to a head during a brief stay in Amsterdam - the "Midwinter Break" Gerry is a retired architect and lecturer. Things come to a head during a brief stay in Amsterdam - the "Midwinter Break" of the title - where we learn that the marriage is also darkened by the shadow of the Irish troubles. Reading Bernard MacLaverty is like watching a master craftsman at work.

Consider the following description of a busy coffee-shop: Coffee places were so noisy. This one sounded like they were making the Titanic rather than cups of coffee - the grinder going at maximum volume, screaming on and on - making enough coffee grounds for the whole of Europe while another guy was shooting steam through milk with supersonic hissing. A girl unpacked a dishwasher, clacking plates and saucers into piles. A third barista was banging the metal coffee-holder against the rim of the stainless steel bar to empty it - but doing it with such venom and volume that Gerry jumped at every strike.

Talking was impossible. It was so bad he couldn't even hear if there was muzak or not. And still the grinder went on and on trying to reduce a vessel of brown-black beans to dust. Stella had to yell her order. These are the catalysts for the couple's drifting apart, even though there is much to show that at heart they do care for each other. This is, in many ways, a brilliant novel. But be prepared — because of its subjects, I found it also unremittingly bleak Threescore Years and Then. And did you get what you wanted from this life, even so?

I did. And what did you want? To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on the earth. This poem, "Late Fragment" by Raymond Carver, is just about the last thing he ever wrote. Bernard MacLaverty quotes it near the end of his beautiful novel, and it distills the essence of the entire book. But it comes at a moment of despair; any transcendence is hard won and must be taken partly on faith.

The spiritual arc of the book and its necessary incompletion are both perfect. Having said that, I could end my review. But won't; there is much else to say. It is her idea, to work out what comes next in their lives or perhaps just in hers ; he goes along for the ride. But behind this bare summary lies an account of two intertwined lives that will surely work its magic on any reader old enough to have reached a similar place.

And on that, I have to say that I started ahead of the curve. Like the author and his characters, I was born in Northern Ireland and was caught in the middle of the same Belfast bombings described from a distance in the book. Like them, I later moved to Glasgow. Like them, I have made several visits to Amsterdam.

And we all must be of the same generation, past our threescore years and ten and wondering what comes next. Another thing I love about the novel is MacLaverty's brilliant use of cultural references. Not for nothing is Gerry an architect and Stella an English teacher. He is the visual one, Amsterdam coming to vivid and sometimes surprising life as seen through his eyes. And of course MacLaverty's. In the rest of this review, I want to show how the author uses outward images, evoked through magnificent prose, to chart the course of the inner lives of Gerry and Stella.

As when they go to the Rijksmuseum and stop before Rembrandt's so-called Jewish Bride : There was a crowd gathered around it. It was huge, big as a hoarding, a great slash of browns and yellows and reds. Hands everywhere. A painting about touch.


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Stella joined the crowd and wormed her way to the front. Gerry watched her bite her lip as she gazed. She became aware of Gerry watching her. He excused himself and threaded his way to her side. On an opposite wall, she sees a large painting of a woman reading. Later, she tries to buy a postcard of it, but they are sold out.

The assistant offers her a different version. And indeed there are: two by Rembrandt and one by Gerrit Dou at least. I find it interesting that MacLaverty should devote a full page to the picture of the beginning of a marriage, but treat as commonplace the subject of a woman nearing the end of one. Threescore years and then… what? Both Gerry and Stella are cradle Catholics, but while he has mostly rejected the faith, she increasingly relies on the practice of hers: She wanted to live the life of her Catholicism.

They could turn into anything her spiritual being required. Stem cells, of course, belong to the embryo; they are all possibility, looking forward. Stella's crisis is as much a spiritual as a marital one.

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While nearly all of Gerry's monologues look backwards—anything beyond the immediate present being obliterated by his excessive drinking—she looks forward to a future she cannot see, asking questions that have no easy answers. What is her purpose in life? What is her debt to God, and how may she repay it in practical terms? On their first morning, skipping breakfast, Stella slips away on an errand of her own, looking for a hard-to-find doorway in a secluded street: There was a brick archway which led to a dark passage.

She hesitantly walked its dry length, hearing her own footsteps echoing. The passageway led out into a space which took her breath away. The notion of being born came to her. An inner court or Roman atrium. In the centre of the green space stood a Christ-like statue facing a red-brick church.

Midwinter Break review: a portrait of love’s complexity

It was the same place she had seen on her computer screen at home. And the silence was the same. The passageway she had come through had edited out the noise of Amsterdam—the trains, the trams, the cars, all gone. As if to emphasise the quiet, some sparrows cheeped within the enclosure of houses. The place is not named at first, but I recognized it: the Begijnhof, the ancient community of Beguines, or secular nuns committed to a life of faith and service, though without taking final vows.

Stella's several visits there, alone or with Gerry, are touching but also heartbreaking. And Gerry's memories also include an "inner court or Roman atrium," further evidence of MacLaverty's extraordinary control of images: A thing that really took his breath away was Norman Foster's roof over the Great Court of the British Museum—the audacity and brilliance of it.

The approach inside the building from a periphery of darkness into the thrilling light at its centre—the largest covered square in Europe—was utterly wonderful. If it was about anything, architecture was about shedding light. Looking for a photo, though, I was equally struck by the cylindrical structure in the middle, which relates to a building in Ireland that Gerry worked on, Burt Chapel in Donegal by the architect Liam McCormick. And to its inspiration, the circular Iron Age fort of Grianan Aileach, further up the hill, a marvelous rhyming of three round objects.

So again, Gerry's thoughts move back in time, to the beginning of his courtship. But the words he remembers are Stella's—not the present Stella seeking refuge in a walled enclosure, but a young woman looking out over half of Ireland. It is a reminder that, whatever torment this book may bring, it remains a love story: But Stella was more interested in the view.

Give or take some trees and a road or two, she said, it was what you would have seen two thousand years ago. With one slow turn of the head you could see the counties of Donegal, Derry and Tyrone, with Lough Swilly and Lough Foyle in the middle of it all.

It made her feel glad to be Celtic. Silence in such a place, at such a height, is hard to come by because the wind is always there bluffing your ears into thinking there is no noise. Maybe the bleat of a sheep and no sheep to be seen. She put her hand in the air to find the wind's direction. A star with her hair blowing.

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Eclipsing all else. Her hand in the air. She had read my review of another novel in which people from Northern Ireland go to Amsterdam for a weekend break, The Light of Amsterdam by David Park. A good book, but she was right to say that MacLaverty's is even better. Then I was nudged into getting it by the extraordinary review by Fionnuala, which is a fascinating account of its page-by-page transformation of her mind.

Click on the names above to read their reviews; they are well worth it. View all 13 comments. I really enjoyed reading about an elderly couple for a change. The writing is superb, how elderly people lead their day to day life. One of my favourite sentences in the book was He was wearing a red angora wool scarf knotted at his throat. He looked at himself in the full length mirror. Somebody said I look flamboyant wearing this. I don't like flamboyant.

I laughed at this sentence as Gerry didn't like the word flamboyant. I personally think that super cool to look flamboyant. I have I really enjoyed reading about an elderly couple for a change. I have found that's there seems to be a huge gap in the publishing world for stories about retired couples, that's exactly what attracted me to this book how the subject of people was different. Gerry and Stella go on a midwinter break to Amsterdam in theory for a happy time together, but after so many years of being married Stella finally has something to tell Gerry.

You will all love this book whatever your age. Midwinter Break is a beautifully written story of a retired couple, Gerry an atheist and an architect and Stella a pious Catholic and teacher, from Northern Ireland but now living in Scotland, their one son grown-up with a child of his own and living far away in Canada. The novel opens with a description of Gerry and Stella's bedtime routines, ones which highlight the problems at the core of their marriage Gerry's alcoholism and something in Stella's past leaving her with physical and both of them with mental scars - and how, in their flat, they each seek refuge from the other: Gerry sat staring ahead.

The television was off and the place silent. There was a cone of light above his head which left the rest of the room in darkness.

He considered the sofa a defensible space. It had a concavity which fitted him exactly. Everything he needed was to hand — favourite books — music and film guides, CDs. His architecture books were shelved in the study. In the bathroom Stella had just gone through her pre-bed routine. He heard the snap of the bolt as she came out.

She came to the end of the sofa smelling of toothpaste and finger-waved a little before going. In the kitchen he filled the Kilkenny jug. Back at the cupboard he poured himself a whiskey in his favourite tumbler and topped it to the brim with water. He liked the heaviness of the Waterford crystal, the heft of it — it made the drink feel more substantial, more potent. He went back to the sofa and set the drink on the bookshelf.

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It glowed yellow in the light. The shelf was lower than the arm of the sofa so that if his wife came in again she would not see it. Not that he was trying to hide it from her — he would say to anyone and everyone, 'At night when Stella goes to bed I have a substantial dram and listen to music. She said goodnight to Gerry and, on her way to the bedroom, passed their luggage in the hall. She switched on the late night news on the small radio beside her bed and got into her pyjamas.

Quickly, because the bedroom air was cold. She saw no point in paying good money to heat a room all day for a minute's comfort last thing at night. Before getting into bed she turned off the electric blanket. Now and again she'd fallen asleep with it still on. By the time Gerry came to bed she felt and looked awful. She loved this hour to herself — this separation at the end of every day. Her hot-water bottle, the electric blanket, the radio voices. Gerry, out of action, in another room listening to music on his headphones.

Having a nightcap, no doubt. Or two or three. The storm doors locked, the windows bolted. The place safe. Sometimes after the news she read for a while in the silence. The sound of a page turning. The absence of talk. But of late she'd been too tired to read, even to hold a book. Hardbacks were out of the question.

There was a tipping point when she knew she was going to 'get over'. Her head would go down on the pillow, her hand creep out from under the covers to get rid of the book or to switch off the radio. The duties and the menus and the lists melted away. Responsibilities were such that nothing could be done at this hour.

They were hidden behind a curtain but would return with a swish first thing in the morning. And before she knew, she was sound asleep. And yet when he comes to bed: In the bedroom the breathing was long and slow. He walked around to his own side. In his absence she had moved to the middle. The warm cave, with the person lying soft at its centre. His pillows seemed to fall naturally into the gap between his cheek and shoulder.

The cave was redolent with cotton smell. He aligned himself to her. Her heel to his instep, knee to back of knee, bum to lap. They were as soft, stacked chairs. Momentarily the steady breathing stopped. She was aware of his arrival and softly ground herself backwards against him. In response he put his arm over her. Her pyjama jacket had ridden up and his now cool fingers accidentally touched the scar on her stomach. Hollow like another navel, a skin pucker. With another one behind her to match. Marked fore and aft, she was. The bags are packed for a midwinter break to Amsterdam, one which Stella has planned for a confrontation of sorts with Gerry and a visit to the peaceful refuge of the Begijnhof a place I haven't visited, but I have often been to the similar and very moving Begijnhof in Bruges , a quiet oasis in the middle of the city As the novel progresses, we learn by a perhaps unnecessarily drawn out revelation what happened in Stella's past and why she is so keen to visit the Begijnhof.

But we also learn that the quote that opens my review is not true at all - both Stella and Gerry are in fact aware of each other's respective hurt. Shelves: religion , fradio , the-troubles , summer , published , radio-4 , contemporary , lit-richer , newtome-author. A holiday to refresh the senses, to do some sightseeing and generally to take stock of what remains of their lives. Their relationship seems safe, easy, familiar — but over the course of the four days we discover the deep uncertainties which exist between them. Stella is tired of his lifestyle, worried about their marriage and angry at his constant undermining of her religious faith.

Things are not helped by memories which have begun to resurface of a troubled time in their native Ireland. As their midwinter break comes to an end, we understand how far apart they are — and can only watch as they struggle to save themselves. Their relationship seems safe, easy, familiar but over the course of a few days we discover the deep uncertainties that exist between them. Gerry, once an architect, is a heavy drinker who is set in his ways. Author Bernard MacLaverty writes restrained yet intimate prose allowing the reader to be part of the holiday. Gerry and Stella Gilmore set off from their home in Scotland to travel to Amsterdam.

The reader feels each characters experience and is akin to a fly on the wall. It is proven that both Gerry and Stella have strong feelings for each other. Yet Stella, who is devout in her faith, is searching for a more meaningful life than her current existence. Meanwhile, Gerry, who loves Stella more than she understands, has no clue that Stella is searching. This difference is amplified when Gerry drinks, which is a lot. Stella is tired of his drinking. There was a pivotal event in their marriage that both are struggling with, and that the reader learns in bits and pieces through flashbacks.

The event affected each in different ways. The novel is short, pages, and is a story of four days of their marriage. In those pages, and through those four days, the reader experiences another pivotal moment in the Gilmore marriage. The marriage is strong and Gerry and Stella are interesting. For example, Stella believes that in every marriage there is a gardener and a flower. One must determine which one they are. Their inner musings alone are reasons to read this novel. I highly recommend this one. I have very mixed feelings about this book.

I wouldn't even say it is a book about a marriage but rather a book about two people who happen to be married trying to find meaning in their lives. This was a heavy read for me and reminds me again how the emotional burdens we carry with us can destroy more than just ourselves. Readers also enjoyed. Literary Fiction. Adult Fiction. About Bernard MacLaverty. Bernard MacLaverty. Bernard MacLaverty was born in Belfast He has been a Medical Laboratory Technician, a mature student, a teacher of English and, for two years in the mid eighties, Writer-in-Residence at the University of Aberdeen.

After living for a time in Edinburgh and the Isle of Islay he now lives in Glasgow.