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Midwinter Break

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arts and theatre, creative writing
Midwinter Break

This novel, by Bernard MacLaverty, follows a retired couple through their weekend trip to Amsterdam. The novel is not specifically about dementia but, as Gerry the husband has some difficulty with his memory, it’s not completely out of our scope on this blogsite either. On the surface, not much happens during this long weekend. They arrive, they visit the Rijksmuseum and the Anne Frank house, their flight back is delayed by snow falling at Schiphol airport. (Reminds me of being stranded there by fog many years ago…)

Like the author of the book, Gerry and Stella are originally from Ulster but now live in Glasgow. He was an architect of modernist buildings that are now falling out of favour, and she was an English teacher. Stella was from a poor rural background and pulled herself up with the aid of the travelling library. Both are from Catholic backgrounds, his faith long lapsed, hers strong and tending towards piety.

As the book unfolds, it becomes clear that Gerry has a serious problem with alcohol. He is surreptitious in his behaviour, concealing half bottles of spirits and disposing of them in corridors in the hotel. He becomes anxious if he is unable to see where the next drink is coming from. At times, he is obviously intoxicated. It may well be the alcohol that contributes most to his memory problems but who knows if he is on the road to dementia. His drinking is of great irritation to Stella, who for her part drinks wine only by the half glass. Her reason for coming to Amsterdam is to explore the possibility of leaving Gerry to join a religious order but she is disappointed to find out that the community she has chosen is no longer a religious one and besides she is now too old to join it anyway.

But the core of the story lies back in the Belfast of the Troubles, when during her pregnancy Stella was shot in the stomach and almost died. Whilst losing consciousness on the pavement, she pledges her life to God if her baby is allowed to survive. It is evident that this incident (scarcely surprisingly) has affected her greatly and she still experiences flashbacks that would be consistent with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It isn’t clear if the impact of the shooting is a factor in Gerry’s slide into alcoholism, but it is quite plausible that it is.

Midwinter Break is beautifully written. It observes the interchanges between the ageing couple convincingly and also conveys the grey and chilly atmosphere of Amsterdam in winter. The tension between past and present is maintained throughout. Especially poignant is Stella’s realisation that her opportunity to serve God in the way she had planned cannot happen. The resolution of all the threads is probably cautiously optimistic but not mawkish or sentimental.

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Midwinter Break by Bernard MacLaverty. Published by Vintage, 2017, ISBN 9781911214212

Cover image courtesy of Penguin Books

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