A finely nuanced story. Warm, tender and funny, as well as moving.
Stella and Gerry, in late middle age are having a break in Amsterdam. They have the kinds of habits that only develop over a long marriage – kissing in a lift if they’re on their own, always holding hands to cross roads. Then there’s ‘ailment hour’ when they devote no more than sixty minutes to their various aches and illnesses. Gerry’s a retired architect and sees life in terms of space and distance; Stella is more spiritual and has reached the stage where she can’t live with his alcoholism. They spend time together and apart visiting the sights of Amsterdam and keeping warm, and as Gerry keeps up a constant stream of jokes and gently mocks the religion that Stella has been turning to more and more, his alcoholism is outlined in all its self-deceptive steps. Drink brings a ‘distancing’ for Gerry; he can ‘spread his wings, rising on the thermals of the first couple of glasses’ but he’s constantly monitoring in case Stella sees him and, making sure of his ‘Traveller’s Friend’, to know he has access to alcohol. He knows his health is suffering and he sees ‘stars against the night sky. Marcasite jabs and darts.’ He fears he might have a stroke.
Looking at a painting together of The Jewish Bride Stella describes it as a painting about touch: ‘Hands. Hands everywhere,’ and goes on to say ‘You can see he cherishes her… but she’s not so sure…’ which also describes their own relationship. She wants a change and one reason she’s chosen Amsterdam is to explore the possibility of joining a women’s religious community. For her the ‘break’ of the title could be more permanent than a holiday, but ‘how could changes be made at her age? To even think of leaving seemed such an impossibility.’
The point of view moves seamlessly from Stella to Gerry, and from present to past, showing the intensity of their relationship when they first met: ‘To her ear his speech seemed fresh-minted’ and he remembers how her skin was ‘flawless, translucent, smooth. It seemed to have light coming from it in the dark.’ Particularly poignant when a separation is a strong possibility. We find out that when Stella was pregnant, during the Troubles in Ireland, she was accidentally shot – ‘Death had winged her.’ In hospital she’d vowed to ‘devote the rest of my life to You’ if the child lived. Now she suffers from flashbacks to the shooting, and also guilt because she hasn’t kept her side of the promise. She wants to ‘live a more devout life’ and tells Gerry: ‘we’ve cut the cloth of our lives wrongly. It doesn’t fit.’
Towards the end of the novel, their flight home delayed for hours because of snow, they reach an uneasy compromise. They’re so much part of each other and Stella knows he’ll only quit drinking if she helps him. For Gerry ‘her presence was as important as the world. And the stars around it. If she was an instance of the goodness in this world then passing through by her side was miracle enough.’
Midwinter Break is a subtle and beautifully written novel.