I have read two of Bernard MacLaverty’s books, one in the pre-blog days (Grace Notes) and The Anatomy School and am very much a fan of his work. This one from 2017 is also worthy, if you can manage the bleakness.
An older couple, Stella and Gerry, are preparing to leave their home in Glasgow for a short trip to Amsterdam. They were from Northern Ireland and had left to escape the Troubles. So that I can remember the artistry of this book, I will write about it in a way that requires a SPOILER ALERT and the acknowledgement that what I bluntly tell unfolds in the book carefully and lovingly. Stella had been grievously wounded in an attack by a splinter group of the IRA when she was pregnant; she and their son both miraculously survived. The son is now grown, married with a child and lives in Canada. Knowing this backdrop makes what they say and feel so poignant.
First, though, the reaction of Stella when they arrive in the train station on the mainland of Europe: “‘Europe,’ she said. ‘Does that not do something to the hairs on the back of your neck? To be on the same piece of land? Rome, Warsaw, Berlin, Prague. Moscow, even. You could get on a train. . .'” Then: “The board changed with a roar and a flutter of individual letters and in an instant the whole board trembled and all the information leapt up a line.” What lovely memories that brings up for me.
MacLaverty’s dialogue is wonderful, as it is in his other books. Gerry begins in this exchange: “‘Would you mind if I, or my ashes, was buried with you?’ ‘If you’re still drinking I don’t want you next nor near me.’ ‘I’ll definitely have given it up by the time I’m dead.’ ‘In that case. . .’ She smiled. ‘I’ll move over.'”
Gerry is reflecting on the many years of Irish strife, “He imagined a deathbed scene with an old man surrounded by his family. ‘I leave you my hatred for the other side. Don’t ever give it up. Keep it close to you like a knife all your days and pass it on when your time comes.'”
Stella, at this time in her life, is searching for something to give the remainder of her life meaning. In Amsterdam she seeks out what she hoped was a community of women called Beguines who beginning in medieval times in Northern Europe sought lives of religious devotion without joining a specific order. And yes, they were a thing; women devoted to prayer and good works who sometimes lived in community, but did not take vows of poverty and could leave at any time. The origin of the name Beguines is not known. According to Wikipedia in the 12th century because of “the structure of urban demographics and marriage patterns” there were more women than men. All this was new to me—pretty interesting.
Their interactions while on this short trip are intense so that we are privy to their intensely held views and private selves as they consider how they will navigate this coming period in their lives. I feel as though I’d been granted a privilege to see into the lives of these people. That’s good writing.
Bernard MacLaverty, Midwinter Break, W.W. Norton and Company, 2017, 243 pages (I read the kindle version). Available in the public library.