by Bernard MacLaverty; W.W. Norton (243 pages, $24.95)
This tender, affecting novel takes place over several days when Gerry and Stella Gilmore fly from their home in Scotland to Amsterdam for a short vacation. Married many years, they have grown accustomed to each other’s quirks and to reading each other’s thoughts. But both have secrets.
Gerry is a drinker. He plans ahead to make sure he has whiskey, stashes bottles in clever hiding spots, puts a washcloth under his glass to muffle the noise, runs water in the bathroom to conceal the sound of clinking ice.
The devoutly Catholic Stella is not fooled, but she’s been married too long and is too weary to challenge him. Plus, she has her own
agenda, as this quiet story slowly reveals.
In Amsterdam, they walk the city, see the sights, tour the Anne Frank house and the red light district, stop in Irish pubs “for a drinkypoo,” Gerry says. MacLaverty tells the story first through Gerry’s eyes, then through Stella’s. The trip unfolds almost moment by moment in quotidian details that are somehow mesmerizing: “She carried her washbag into the bathroom. Gerry could see her reflected in a mirror opposite the doorway. She tore off the pleated paper from a bar of soap and inhaled it. ‘I’ll have the luxury of a bath or two in here,’ she shouted. She took out her plastic bag of creams and tubes and artificial tears and set them on a ledge.”
The slow pace and intimate details magnify the distance between the two. That they love each other is not in question; whether or not the marriage will survive most definitely is.
MacLaverty’s gorgeous prose is tactile and understated (“The canal water darkened here and there under the wind, like a finger across suede”) and the poignancy of his story fills the reader with yearning. The book ends in a snowstorm that evokes James Joyce’s “The Dead.” It might seem contrived from a lesser writer, but in this case it feels just right.