He’s not what you’d call prolific, Bernard MacLaverty. Midwinter Break is his fifth novel in 40 years, and his first in 16. And, in that time, it could be argued that Irish writers have moved away from his bare and declarative style into the wildness of, say, a Barry or a Barrett or a Baume; word-typhoons, of an affinity with the febrile and fervid times. What cannot be doubted, though, is MacLaverty’s awareness of, and wide aliveness to, the world’s flux, its writhings in the decades since his first novel Lamb; in his latest, his deep familiarity with, and angry love for, the workings of the UK, and Europe, and the globe are displayed stark and clear, the stylistic precision of their expression becoming a haven from a hot and hyper-active mediated age.
Indeed, this is a book of hiatus and interlude and parenthesis, of airports and bathrooms and bars and hotel rooms and religious cloisters and museums; of thresholds and liminalities. Its setting is a holiday in Amsterdam in an icy January, taken by an ageing couple from Belfast by way of Glasgow: Stella, a Catholic with ‘a sense of drift’, and her husband Gerry, a retired architect and man of a million hidden whiskies. The vacation is a gift from her to him, but with a concealed motive. It is an exploration of love and the loss of love, of parenthood, and violence, and fanaticism, and the search for meaning and everything else and human, and it is, pretty much, a perfect piece of work.
It is paced flawlessly, is lapidary of structure, and is delivered with a purpose and clarity and control that can shut out the noise of the world, of your own heartbeat, even: one of those precious books that, when at last you look up from its pages, you need a moment of re-adjustment, of decompression, so immersive is it.