The Belfast-born writer etches an affecting portrait of a couple more than 40 years married as they confront the idea that one of them is thinking of leaving.
Stella is a retired English teacher who likes to do cryptic crosswords as mental exercise. Her husband, Gerry, is a retired architect who likes to drink. They grew up and met in Northern Ireland but now live in Scotland, apparently exiled by the violence of the “thirty years war,” a time 74-year-old MacLaverty (Collected Stories, 2014, etc.) wrote of in Cal and elsewhere. That all is not well with the marriage may first be gleaned from their taking a January holiday in Amsterdam—an odd time and place to seek a break from the Glasgow winter. The signs and sounds of friction emerge as the two characters exhibit and silently or orally comment on the routines, tics, and habits fostered by four decades of marriage, an accretion that, like coral, can offer both protection and sharp edges. Deploying a masterful palette of details and allusions, MacLaverty reveals that Stella is on a mission that involves a Dutch Beguinage—a women's religious community—an old vow, her Catholic faith, and three scars: one from a C-section and two puckered circles on the front and back of her torso that are long left unexplained. Gerry’s boozing, so sadly and desperately on display in these few days, and his often acerbic jabs at Catholicism—a seeming relic of the Troubles—buttress her resolve, but they aren’t apparently decisive. MacLaverty makes the reader share some of the regret in the prospect of a sudden sundering by giving the couple a keen, humorous, mutually delightful banter that comes only with years of wit and happy practice.
A closely observed, deeply sympathetic rendering of a relationship and the fissures that threaten to wreck it.