It’s been years since Bernard MacLaverty came out with a new novel, but it’s been well worth the wait. In Midwinter Break (W.W. Norton, $24.95) MacLaverty gives us an elderly Irish couple living in Scotland, who take a brief winter trip to Amsterdam. Over their forty-year marriage, Gerry and Stella have forged a deep understanding of each other, along with a mutual fondness and regard. They share habits, anecdotes, and history and have a son now living in Canada with his wife and child. But the book’s title hints at another, more serious, midwinter break: that of their marriage. Gerry is a retired architect with a serious drinking problem. Though he’s been trying to hide the full extent of it, Stella has had enough. Unbeknownst to Gerry, she’s arranged to visit a Dutch Beguinage, a house of lay religious women, where she imagines she might start a new chapter of her life, one filled with contemplation and purpose. With heartrending insight, MacLaverty explores how the intimacies in a long marriage can sometimes obscure its deep fault lines; in this case, the initial flaws go back to a personal trauma the couple experienced during the Troubles. MacLaverty’s writing is pitch perfect. He is one of Ireland’s greatest living writers and he’s at the top of his game in this novel.
Marcus Conway is at his kitchen table, listening to the church bell toll in his small Western Irish town of Lewisburgh. In some sense, that is the entirety of Mike McCormack’s 2017 Man Booker long-listed Solar Bones (Soho, $25). But told in the manner of Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine’s book-in-the-span-of-an-escalator-ride, it’s really about much more. Marcus’s mind cycles through a variety of episodes surrounding the night his young daughter has her big art opening, each piece testing his duties as a good family member, a good worker, and a good political citizen. Picking out where one piece ends and the next begins, however, is tricky and one of the greatest pleasures in this book. Yes, this novel is one sentence long, but this is no cause for intimidation. McCormack’s writing is so lucid, conversational, and well-paced that Solar Bones counts as one of this year’s (or any year’s) most unconventional page-turners. Nor does McCormack use his virtuosity as a mere gimmick; rather, it’s one with the underlying emotions of this book and this unforgettable character, Marcus, who wants to hold together everything he knows, the joys and the struggles both, for as long as he has left.
When we meet Victor, an occasional and provocative radio commentator, he’s separated from his wife and lives in a tiny apartment. He’s struggling to write his book about “what’s wrong with Ireland,” but he’s more concerned with picking out a regular pub in his new neighborhood. With present circumstances constrained and the future a blank, Victor falls back on the past. He relives the moment he met his wife, a beautiful entrepreneur and TV chef, and recreates scenes from their marriage. But he also recalls the childhood bullying, the early death of his father, and being “molested” by the headmaster of his Christian Brothers school. As the memories unfold, it’s clear that Victor’s Smile (Viking, $25) isn’t happiness, but a denial that anything is amiss. His memories are similarly deceptive. His marriage seems so fantastic because much of it is fantasy and his darker recollections only hint at what really happened. As Victor argues with himself, tells himself stories, and at last has to listen to his own revelations, he seems not one character, but several: he’s the successful writer and loving husband he might have been as well as the angry and guilty victim he tries to hide and to hide from. Roddy Doyle here uses his tremendous skill with dialogue—as well as his irrepressible humor—to show the truly shattering psychological consequences of physical abuse, and how the damage continues even decades later