Bernard MacLaverty is one of those authors who you can imagine holding an audience around the fire absolutely spellbound. You can imagine him, in the Great Hall of Brian Boru or some other Irish King, plucking his harp and letting the story pour out of him. I would certainly be one of those sitting there entranced.
This is the story of Gerry and Stella Gilmore, an aging couple on a midwinter break in Amsterdam from their home in Glasgow. They have been married for a very long time and it is Stella who has decided that they need to have a little holiday in Amsterdam. She has a reason for this which becomes clear at the start of the story. She is interested in visiting the Begijnhof, a community of women withdrawn from the world, but not nuns, and in finding out about membership.
Gerry is unaware of this, but he has his own little secret or, at least, he thinks it is a secret. It is his liking for the bottle. Gerry, drunk and lost in the hotel corridor, is a comic tour de force. This is the kind of little touch at which Bernard MacLaverty excels. It is very funny and very human at the same time. This is one of the moments when the reader warms to Gerry. It is impossible not to like him. He is a man who likes music, and who like his comforts, such as a dram of Jameson’s. [Paddy does not get mentioned but then Gerry and Stella are from Belfast. I am sure that Gerry would like Paddy too].
Stella is the more spiritual of the two, a devout Catholic, seeking the solace of her faith. This is why she is interested in the Begijnhof, and has been researching it. She remembers someone telling her about it, many years ago, and that memory has been haunting her. For Stella, it holds out the possibility of a change in her life.
I have let slip here that Gerry and Stella fled to Glasgow from Belfast because of the troubles. Understandably, they did not feel that Belfast in the 1970s was a safe place to bring up their son, which is why they moved to Glasgow. The whole story is about uncovering the reason for their fear. The whole story is about how they became the people that they are because of one event, one major traumatic event in the lives of two, until then, ordinary people.
I am in many ways chary of that phrase “ordinary people” because I do not think that Bernard MacLaverty considers anyone to be ordinary. He sees what is unique in all of us, and that is what he brings to the fore in his storytelling. That is why he is an absolute master at the art of storytelling. That is why you must read this book.