Making the Mundane Interesting
Some of the best books are those written about the simplest situation. A couple have been married for decades and decide on a long weekend in Amsterdam.
We first meet them the night before their departure. We stay with them through night-time preparations, up early the next morning, waiting for a taxi that arrives late; as they negotiate airport departures and arrivals, settle into their hotel.
So far, so mundane. We’ve all of us likely been through this exact same routine. We know about the respective bathroom routines, sleep habits, irritations, shared worries – but we don’t often see them detailed in a book. And that’s the sheer pleasure of this novel. You can nod along, grimace, smile at the familiar.
If you Only Read one Book This Year!
The book is Midwinter Break by Bernard MacLaverty, and I read it after it was listed as one of the Sunday Times’ recommendations at the end of 2017. I think what they actually said was something along the lines of, “If you read only one book this year, it should be this one.”
But besides that, the description appealed, as did the Amsterdam setting, a city I’ve visited often. It can be satisfying recognising references, to be able to visualise exactly a street or building or square.
The couple are Gerry and Stella. He’s a retired architect, she a retired English teacher. They’re from Belfast, but left for Glasgow in the midst of the Troubles.
Make or Break?
This story, their history, gradually emerges, and adds nuance and understanding for the reader. Their life has been tough, and shadowed by violence. It’s had its effect on them both in different ways. He drinks heavily, she has turned increasingly to the very religion that has had such savage effect on their life together. It begins to feel like a make-or-break holiday, at least where Stella is concerned….with her thoughts clearly already tending towards the “break”.
Will they make it? I found I cared, in spite of Gerry’s irascible character, his deceitful drinking, the sometimes coarse manner that serves as scab over deep wounds. Stella is patient, damaged, dreaming…. Yes, I cared.