Midwinter Break by Bernard MacLaverty

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My review of Bernard MacLaverty’s new novel appears in today’s Sunday Business Post Magazine. The Iron Paywall supervenes, as usual, but here’s a wee excerpt:

“The novel,” said the poet and critic Randall Jarrell, “is a prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it.” And almost all novels do have something wrong with them: dead patches, boring bits, lapses of talent or taste. Readers, as a rule, don’t mind this: it’s part of the unspoken contract that pertains whenever you open a novel (I’ll put up with the dull parts, you say to yourself, if the good parts are sufficiently good). But some writers have minded it very much. The quest to perfect the novel – to write a novel with no bad bits – begins with Flaubert, who spent five years labouring to make Madame Bovary letter-perfect. Flaubert’s 20th century heirs include James Joyce (who spent seven years on Ulysses) and Truman Capote (six years on In Cold Blood). Even in our age of laxities, the Flaubertian standard lingers as an ideal, pursued by writers who believe that the novel can – indeed should – be as formally exact as a lyric poem.

I don’t know how long Bernard MacLaverty spent composing Midwinter Break. But it is sixteen years since his last novel, The Anatomy School, appeared, and the new book is evidently the product of a fanatical scrupulousness. As a result, Midwinter Break is that rarest of things: a near-perfect novel. It is Flaubertian (or Joycean) in the sense that it conjures a luminous universality from the sensuous details of two purely ordinary lives. And it is a masterpiece in the traditional sense: a work that establishes beyond all doubt its author’s credentials as a master.


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