Writers may see young love as offering greater potential for excitement and plot, but, as Bernard MacLaverty’s fifth novel shows, love in later life can be both more complex and ultimately more affecting. A marriage that has lasted forty years has many stories to offer, not just about forbearance, accommodations and forgiveness, but also about secrets, sadness and Faustian bargains.
Gerry and Stella are in their seventies, retired and on a city break to Amsterdam. Like MacLaverty himself, they are Irish but live in Glasgow. Gerry was an architect. Stella is religious and increasingly drawn to a spiritual life. They have a grown-up son and a grandchild who live in Canada. Like any couple spending a lot of time together, they rely on a catalogue of shared jokes and memories. For Gerry, high jinks means pretending to forget to buy the Werther’s Originals, so that he can present them to Stella with a flourish on the plane. ‘Like a sweet for take-off, modom?’ We imagine her rolling her eyes.
There is nothing especially unusual about them, or, to put it another way, there is everything unusual about them, as there is about any couple that has lasted so many years together, with their share of sadness and joy. We would recognise Stella and Gerry if we found ourselves sitting opposite them in an airport lounge and we might think – wrongly – that they were dull.
MacLaverty draws out his characters with great patience. They seem very fond of each another. They have sex surprisingly often for a couple their age, and at night they sleep as ‘soft, stacked chairs’. They have a habit of kissing in lifts between floors. In the street they hold hands. Gerry is uxorious, admiring of his wife and very protective: he always stands behind her on escalators because she has poor spatial awareness. The comfort and pattern of their relationship particularly shine in their dialogue, which is so good it’s film-ready. Gerry’s amiability is bred in the bone. Every event is an opportunity for joking. In the hotel room, when they send away the chambermaid who’s come to put a chocolate on their pillows, he quips, ‘We’ve just turned down the turn-down service.’
We learn that early in their marriage, when they were still living in Northern Ireland, Stella was involved in an accident. We don’t at first know the details, except that she nearly died and that somehow Gerry has not overcome this trauma. It may be the reason why he drinks so much – about a bottle of whiskey a day, of any kind: ‘As far as alcohol was concerned he was totally non-sectarian.’ The grim choreography of Gerry’s dependency and his attempts to disguise it is painfully well done. At home it would be easier to hide how much he drinks, but in a hotel bedroom he relies on his wife going into the bathroom so that he can top up his official whiskey bottle from another, secret one, coughing to cover the snap of the screw top. In one awful scene, he gets lost outside the room while trying to find somewhere surreptitiously to throw away an empty, then wanders drunkenly up and down the corridor, listening to the background noise of televisions drifting from the rooms and the ‘padding sound of his stocking feet over the carpet as he wavered along’. Back in his room he feels like Odysseus, home after a ten-year journey – and has a nightcap to celebrate the event.
The narrative point of view alternates between Gerry and Stella, though mostly it stays with Gerry and MacLaverty does him better. That’s partly because Stella is necessarily closed – a result of both Gerry’s lack of control and a secret that won’t be revealed until the end of the book. Gerry is funnier too, despite his drinking. ‘What’s happened to you?’ Stella asks in a moment of disgust. ‘You’re nothing but appetite.’
There have been other stories of relationships unravelling in European cities. I think particularly of Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy arguing all over beautiful parts of Paris in the film Before Sunset. The drawback of a narrative based on a city trip is that we have to go with our protagonists on their tour: in this case to the Rijksmuseum, to Anne Frank’s house and to various bars and restaurants. Interpreting their itinerary, as well as following the development of the narrative, can hold back the action. Appropriately for a story set in Amsterdam, there is some slow pedalling in Midwinter Break, but it’s redeemed by the downhill rush of the novel’s climax.
Throughout, the ride is enlivened by some beautiful writing. Even mundane activities, like sightseeing with relatives, are given surprising life. ‘That first summer when the Canadians visited Glasgow they’d had the luck of good weather – almost a heatwave – and the bridges felt warm under their forearms as they looked down at the diminished rivers.’ There are some lovely Irish and Scots turns of phrase. Stella on the escalator ‘seemed in a dwam as she was carried upwards, one hand resting on the black rubber banister’.
MacLaverty can make anything interesting, even airports: the lounges, the queues, the dreary search for a boarding pass in the duty-free shop. On drinking and drunkenness he is revelatory. There is something seductive about the way Gerry hears the whiskey ‘talking to him – murmuring pleasantly in his ear’. Midwinter Break is either an excellent advertisement for whiskey or a really bad one.