Islands in the mist


“Islanders are never afraid, if they were they wouldn’t be able to live here,” reflects the resourceful Ingrid, one of the only family scratching out a living on a tiny island off the coast of Norway in Roy Jacobsen’s novel The Unseen.

The title has layers of meaning. We begin with a view from the outside; a local pastor who finally visits the island and his charges there after deferring his pastoral duty for years due to his fear of sea travel. He makes a quick assessment of their character, feeling a certain pity for the way Ingrid’s childish hands will soon be scarred by hard work, regretting the feeble-mindedness of another sister, eating his dinner and falling asleep. The islanders help him back into the boat and go about their lives. His usefulness to them is limited.

The rest of the story is told from their point of view. Those expecting romance and blissful solitude will be disappointed. This is a powerful, yet laconic account of back-breaking hard work, wild weather and a great deal left unspoken. Mysteries are mentioned but barely, if ever, explained. It reminds me of the German TV series Heimat, which reproduced the banality as well as the beauty of everyday life in a rural community, getting under our skin until we knew the characters intimately and saw a tumultuous period of history through their eyes. There is minimal dialogue in The Unseen, and the nuts and bolts of daily life seem mundane but leave you marvelling at human resourcefulness and the constant battle for dignity and meaning.

Islands fascinate many people, myself included. The idea of being in charge of your own private kingdom, albeit a tiny one, combined with their natural beauty and air of mystery, can be intoxicating. But we romanticise them at our peril. The important qualifications for island life were until modern times, and often still are, stoicism, courage, resourcefulness and the capacity for unremitting hard work and prudent management of scarce resources.

They are not, however, without their magic. Roy Jacobsen writes lyrically of the flotsam and jetsam blown in by the tide – some useful, some faintly bizarre – an entire wheelhouse, messages in bottles that fail to reach their destination, the slimy casket of a wealthy lady’s personal effects. Sometimes the most unpromising blow-ins turn out to be the most valuable. Family is not simply defined by ties of blood, which in The Unseen can be convoluted and best left unexamined. It can include those who are washed up by circumstances, rejected by mainland society – the odd, the backward, the illegitimate and the dispossessed. Only one character in this story is unequivocally rejected by the island community; an escaped convict whose primary crime is to expect bed and board without making any contribution to the domestic economy.

Here is a book that stands squarely on its own terms and makes few concessions. It is about an elemental place that seems changeless but is in fact as vulnerable as anywhere else on earth to the vicissitudes of history. War, economics and technology all bring their own challenges and opportunities. The islanders choose their battles, battered by long experience. Some things cannot be changed, particularly the extremes of weather. Their projects are sometimes rebuilt two, three or more times because of its ravages. Jacobsen  is a master of linguistic economy. Deeds tell us more than words. A major extension to the family house is changed into a water cistern because it obscures someone’s view of their childhood home on a neighbouring island. And when a telescope is found, the conclusion is drawn that perhaps humans are not designed to see beyond the all-important horizon, because such encounters awaken dreams and raise unanswerable questions.

It sounds like a grim read, this account of exposure, stoicism and mortality. In fact it is nothing of the kind. It is as invigorating as a breath of sea air filling the lungs of a city dweller. Few of us would hanker after such a life. But it has its moments of intense happiness, and they are best savoured when they come, for who knows what tomorrow may bring? And there is a refreshing egalitarianism in its knitting together of unlikely characters in a stubborn and independent domestic commonwealth.

Islands are easy to fall in love with. They are also, both physically and psychologically, very difficult to leave. Most of us only see them from the outside. We will never fully understand them, or what motivates their denizens to cling to their exposed and arduous  lifestyle. It is a mystery that Jacobsen evokes perfectly, and does not fall into the trap of trying to explain. Instead he relies on the gift of any great novelist, the capacity to evoke empathy with people whose lives seen unlike our own.


See that girl


Vita Sackville-West’s writing desk, Sissinghurst, Kent (National Trust Photo Library)

Long ago as an Eng Lit undergraduate, I endured a term on 20th Century literature with a tutor who could have come straight out of a Malcolm Bradbury novel. Bearded, corpulent, booming-voiced, with a bottle of booze constantly at his elbow, he never wasted an opportunity to bully me because I liked Virginia Woolf. Lawrence, he thundered, that was what it was all about! Woolf was effete, privileged – she had servants! What did she know about real life? If I encountered him now I would say at least two things – one that bonking on the rug in front of a roaring fire in the household of a thinly-disguised Ottoline Morrell isn’t exactly social realism, and two that Lawrence had a servant, too. She was called Frieda, she left her husband and kids to service his monumental ego, because a wandering social pariah, and at least the Woolfs paid their domestic help.

I worshipped dead men for their strength, forgetting I was strong.

Vita Sackville-West

I found myself thinking about this yesterday as I walked past a house that’s presently being renovated, and had to move into the middle of the road because the pavement was fully occupied by a bloke in a white van eating his lunch with the doors both wide open. That’s the thing about toxic (and occasionally non-toxic but thoughtless) masculinity – it is based on the assumption that men take up space and women squeeze around them. The first women to challenge this, and to literally demand their own space, tended to belong to social and/or intellectual elites. Vita Sackville-West, with her glorious book-lined tower writing room at Sissinghurst, comes to mind. As does Woolf herself, with her country retreat at Monks’ House and her accommodating, possibly celibate, marriage.

Elites have a bad press these days, but they have their uses. When privilege is really deeply entrenched, they are in a particularly strong and visible position to challenge it. Yes, I hear you all cry, what did Vita and Virginia ever do for the suffering unemployed? Fair enough, but how many of the people who throw rocks at Virginia know about the devastating series of personal losses she’d experienced by the age of twenty, and her horrendous struggles with severe mental illness before the era of anti-depressants? Let’s be terribly understanding and sympathetic about mental illness, let’s wear the T-shirt and tweet the supportive slogans, but God forbid that we should include someone wealthy in our circle of empathy.

Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size.

Virginia Woolf

I am sure that Virginia, Vita and their circle could be ghastly, self-indulgent snobs. But that is because they were human, not specifically on account of their class or gender. And roistering males who expressed their creativity through titanic bouts of alcoholism and strings of wrecked relationships don’t seem to be exposed to the same scrutiny. Nobody’s social class or gender ought to give the a free pass. But in all fairness, that should apply to everyone, not only those considered to be cool and authentic.

There are an awful lot of people around like my tutor, who broadcast their personal preferences as self-evident truth. They congregate on Twitter, quick to mock Abba and say they got into The Clash. Fine, I’ve no problem with that. But this very quickly turns into bullying, forcing dissenting, more marginal voices into the middle of the road while you eat your lunch. Please, let’s call it out for what it is.

I can imagine the eye-rolling if I get back onto the subject of Dancing Queen. But one of the reactions that saddened me among the flood of tweets was that it was “the saddest song ever written.” It’s all about death, apparently. A sad old person watches a young girl lost in the moment of joyful self-expression, and mourns the loss of their youth. Sorry, but I don’t see it that way at all. That’s an interpretation, but mine is different. I see it as someone rejoicing as they observe a young woman’s confidence and freedom, her indifference to what anybody else thinks about her.

It’s quite possible to be older than seventeen but not particularly want to be on the dance floor yourself, to rejoice in the simple pleasure, confidence and freedom of others. Middle age has taught me that. We should probably spend more time watching young people find their joyful space, and cheering them on. It doesn’t matter what they are dancing to. It’s the dance that counts.


“I Was Hitler’s room-mate”. A haunting new novel examines complicity with evil


Days before his suicide, Hitler examines an architect’s model of his home city of Linz, rebuilt as a Nazi cultural capital

THE TRISTAN CHORD by Glenn Skwerer

“I was Hitler’s room mate.” It sounds like a nasty B-movie, doesn’t it? But for six months in Vienna in 1908, a young man called August Kubizek actually was. In fact, he had known Hitler for a couple of years by then. They had met as teenagers in the opera queue in Linz, their hometown, and become inseprable companions. Kubizek was under no illusions about his friend’s hang-ups – his endless, self-centred monologues about music, architecture and the potential of the arts to purify degenerate mankind, his almost complete inability to sustain normal relationships, his refusal to take part in any social activity that would expose his obsessions to a healthy scrutiny. He had seen Hitler’s devotion to his mother, and terrible grief at her death. As a frustrated musician himself, he could empathise with his friend’s discontents, his longing to transform the world. After Hitler persuaded his parents to allow him to try his luck at the Conservatoire in Vienna,  he was emotionally bound to him in a way he would never quite be able to define or explain.

Almost 40 years later, Kubizek found himself interred by American occupying forces, regularly pumped for information on his troubling past as the Hitlerjungenfreund (friend of the Führer’s youth). Eventually they released him and he wrote a book about it. This is the basis of Glenn Skwerer’s haunting novel.

Skwerer is up-front about his fictionalisation of Kubizek’s narrative. He gives him a different name, Eugen Reczek, and invents a relationship between Reczek and the cultured Jewish mother of one of his music students, which eventually drives Hitler out of his life. But never, quite, out of his dreams. That’s the most disturbing thing about the book. Not the exposure of the horrors of the concentration camps, Adolf’s disgusting obsessions and personal habits, or even that the two young men hooked up in the first place. Most of that is on record. There will be people who find it difficult to cope with the scene where Hitler, the devoted son, tenderly places ice on his dying mother’s tongue, when she is too sick to drink liquids. They won’t like to think of him having any redeeming qualities whatsoever. But as Skwerer points out in an Afterword, to make Hitler into a monster isn’t honest or wise. He was human. Deal with it.

It’s the quietly devastating final section of this book that really lingers in the mind. Reczek becomes a provincial official of the kind Hitler despised, his musical career derailed by the First World War. He hides away the watercolours that Hitler once painted for him and never mentions their friendship to his wife. Yet the allure remains. When Hitler becomes Chancellor, they resume contact. Unprompted, Hitler writes a huge cheque for the musical education of Reczek’s three sons.  He invites Reczek to Bayreauth to hear their adored Wagner as it should be performed, and Reczek is transfixed. His ecstatic love of the operas remains undimmed. And what of his love – if such it can be called – for the Führer himself?

The Americans chip away at his defences. Reczek tells them he was never political by nature. He only became a Nazi when it seemed rude not to. He secretly finds his interrogators a little vulgar, unable to appreciate the transformative power of great Germanic art. He suspects, at least until very late in the day, that reports of the death camps are Allied propaganda. Yes, Hitler was a bit weird. He made him very uncomfortable at times. But, you know,  Austrians greeted the Anschlüss with open arms. Well, except for the Jews of course. It was a pity about the Jews…

The payoff from all this is that by now we have identified with Reczek through his long first-person account. Who hasn’t known someone at uni who got into some weird stuff? Who became downright creepy? When do you raise the alarm? It’s not as if they all go on to murder six million people. Most of them grow out of it. Okay, his friend was a little odd. Well, very odd at times. But, you know, there was a lot of anti-Semitism in Vienna in the old days. It wasn’t a nice place. How was he to know?

By now we’ve come to regard Reczek as a reliable narrator. We want to believe he’s okay, just a bit misguided. But at what point do we no longer trust him? When he lets the Nazi top brass fete him and offer him a job? When he never mentions his Jewish assistant’s disappearance? When he goes to Bayreauth and has the best week of his life? When he finds out that none of the family of his boyhood mistress survived the death camps? And that’s what makes the ending of the story so unsettling. Does he accept the truth, or simply make the necessary accommodation with reality?

And that is the tricky bit. For evil to triumph, good men must do nothing. What makes a good man? We may even be one of them ourselves. Faced with Hitler as a room-mate, when would we raise the alarm? And what if no-one listened?

Stephen Fry explains Wagner’s revolutionary “Tristan Chord” – video

The Tristan Chord is available now from Unbound for £24.00, or from Amazon for £12.50

Walking out of homelessness – a challenging new take on the SW Coast Path

salt path.png

We were regularly asked: “How come you have enough time to walk so far?” When we told the truth, children were held closer, dogs retracted on leads, doors were closed and conversations ended very quickly.

Raynor Winn

It is hard to imagine a more desperate situation than the one faced by Raynor Winn and her husband Moth than the one they find themselves in at the start of this remarkable memoir. Huddled in their Welsh farmhouse, hiding from the bailiffs after a long court battle goes against them, they are not only homeless and almost penniless but reeling from a recent diagnosis that Moth is terminally ill.

What would you do? Probably, particularly in view of medical advice, you wouldn’t decide, almost on a whim, to walk the Britain’s most demanding long-distance footpath, backpacking and living on less than £40 a week. Yet that seemed preferable to sofa-surfing and waiting years for an elusive council house and a new life.

So off they went. Now I know from bitter experience that even in short managable sections, using a luggage transfer service and sleeping in comfortable B&B s every night, this is no small undertaking. On paper, their decision borders on lunacy, or at least irresponsibility. Yet off they went. Cue for the usual discussions of burning thighs, agonising blisters and pitching camp in all weathers.

Coast path odysseys are becoming a genre in their own right. They tend to either focus, with various degrees of jokiness, on the considerable physical hardships, or more lyrically on the way plodding along this narrow strip of land at England’s edge changes you. And Raynor Winn does both. The path does change them. It gives them purpose, hope, a connection to the natural world, and, surprisingly, a dramatic improvement in Moth’s health prognosis.

When you have no obvious future, sometimes the best thing to do is just to keep putting one foot in front of the other. It really is that simple. And in the end, in a scene that would have the most hard-hearted reader punching the air, it pays off. There’s a gloriously hard-won happy ending. But this is not an easy read. It’s a penetrating look at social exclusion. The Winns soon find out that one story – that of the early retirees selling their house, sticking the money in the bank and hitting the open road, brings affirmation and respect. But the reality, that they are homeless and haven’t a clue what else to do with themselves, rapidly ends a conversation.

Living in Manchester, averting my eyes from figures slumped in doorways is no novelty to me. I live with it by dehumanising them, choosing to assume that they got their through some weakness of character or combination of circumstances unimaginable to me. But The Salt Path makes you realise what it’s like when people recoil from you because you haven’t been able to shower for days, when you press your nose up hungrily against the windows of cafés and are asked to move on because you’re putting the customers off their pasties, and when you have to climb sea cliffs on a diet of dried noodles for days on end.

The rural idyll of the West Country has a dark side of deprivation and desperation that the tourists rarely see. In woodland hollows, people priced out of the housing market camp out. In pretty villages, scratch the surface and you will find the mentally ill, the drifting and the addicted. Most of us imagine homelessness in an urban setting. But in a recent Big Issue article, Rayner Winn claims that she and Moth were far from alone in taking to long-term backpacking to give them a much needed sense of purpose when faced with crisis.

So read this book if you love hiking, the West Country, the natural world, tales of unexpected human kindnesses and hope found in unlikely places. But don’t read it to escape. The Coast Path tests you to the limit. I can say that from hard-won personal experience. And like any pilgrimage, if fully embraced, it will introduce you to unexpected encounters, broaden your outlook and challenge your prejudices.

The Salt Path – Penguin Books


Volunteer burnout and mental health – the ugly truth

By the time I realised what I was putting up with, it was too late. I should have valued myself a lot more.


Until today I’ve avoided the subject of my library job coming to a rather messy end last October on this blog. Partly because I wanted to move on and not call out any of the people involved while feelings were still raw. It’s a bit undignified and I’m still not sure if I will be returning to that kind of work one day, so I was reluctant to burn my bridges.

What has made me reconsider is that this is Mental Health Awareness Week and a number of people have shared similar experiences on social media. Most of them have felt isolated and inadequate for being unable to cope with the unrelenting and unsustainable pressures of a job in the public sector in the current climate. Several have said that the thing they have found most helpful was others sharing their experiences.

I agree – this culture of grin and bear it is helping nobody. I suspect that the longer people like us go on trying to live up to ever-increasing expectations and growing workloads, the longer the present dire state of affairs in public services will continue. I can only speak for education. In the course of 15 months or so I went from 5 hours a week looking after one small school library (200 pupils) to three schools, three different sites, and over 1,000 children, plus well over 100 members of staff, having needs I was valiantly attempting to meet, officially in 16.5 paid hours a week, but in reality a full-time job and then some.

Some of this pressure was self-inflicted. I find it hard to say no and when my school became an Academy Trust it seemed like a great opportunity to roll out what had been a successful modus operandi elsewhere. I remain very proud of the three school libraries I either opened or revived, and the fact that they created at least one job other than my own. But I soon found myself trying to do a challenging job that I had absolutely no qualifications for, in a difficult environment where there was continual pressure on resources – financial, physical and human. Sadly, the bright era of co-operation between the three schools didn’t quite materialise, and I found myself in a situation where I was constantly suspected of having divided loyalties and vital information was undoubtedly withheld from me at times.

I think many of my difficulties stemmed from the fact that I was initially a parent-turned-volunteer who hung around and was eventually absorbed onto the payroll. Many colleagues appreciated what I was trying to achieve and the support I did my best to give to them. But I never quite felt I was one of the team. There were people who were only too ready to mention my lack of professional librarianship and teaching qualifications, though the Trust would never have been able to resource someone in the role who’d had them, and I left with nearly 20 years of experience under my belt. I probably had also developed a tunnel vision about the job which made it difficult for me to regard it rationally. I was always late, always fire-fighting, always putting on my best face for another class of lively 7 year olds, and always terrified that one day something would snap and I would be unreasonable or even unkind to one of those children I so very much wanted to inspire and help.

It took me a long time to realise how unwell I was. In fact, it wasn’t until I realised I was seriously contemplating throwing myself in front of a train rather than go to work the next morning. I won’t go into the gory details here. Some things could have been better handled, but nobody had the time to poke something that appeared on the surface to be working. My collapse surprised a lot of people and some were lovely and supportive. But I was asked to come into work three or four times after being signed off sick with severe depression to show other people how to do my job, and watch them struggling with things I could have done easily had I been fit and well. That did nothing to help my recovery.

It seemed for a while as if I would be able to return part-time to one of the schools where I had built up contacts, and a library service I was proud of and devoted to. In fact, once mental illness came into the conversation, I wasn’t even allowed to go into the building  to collect my things and say goodbye. Even bankers at Lehmann Bros got that. In education, the spectre of child protection always haunts you. I am sure the manager involved was trying to be professional but when you are already suicidally depressed and so stressed you are suffering from dissociative episodes and unable to drive safely, it’s hardly motivating to be treated as a potential threat to children’s wellbeing and told that you will need constant supervision should you have the temerity to come back into work. At the time, I wasn’t up to the job. But with better handling I could have been, and even an hour a week covering books would have done wonders for my self-esteem.

All that happened last October and I’m still not completely well. My medication has been increased and I spend my days gardening, working out, learning new things (my watercolours are coming along) and feeling useless and guilty. I am deliberately cautious about the time I spend on social media because I hear about so many people in desperate need and feel I am privileged and self-indulgent not to be out there helping them. Yes, I’ve done my bit, but I failed, I messed up big-time and feeling that I might never be able to handle a responsible job again is a hard thing to come to terms with. At 59, I don’t quite feel ready to retire. But it may be forced upon me.

What would I say to others in my shoes? Don’t promise to do a job people should be paying you to do. In libraries these days it’s happening all the time. And it’s wrong. It’s exploitative and in the end it doesn’t make things better long-term. Professional jobs need to be done by people who have the status, experience and training to do them and are paid accordingly. If you ignore these stark realities, and many decent people will, you will eventually burn yourself out and the resources to pick up the pieces may not be there. Even for professionals they are thin on the ground. And if you must say yes, do your utmost to surround yourself with people you trust who will have your back and fight your corner. Many genuinely intend to do so when you start, but such are the pressures on them that they will take the line of least resistance when you need them to say unpopular things, and ultimately throw you under a bus if that is the only way they can see to ensure that the show goes on. I do not say that in bitterness. I was bullied at work and did not speak out when I should have done. By the time I realised what I was putting up with, it was too late. I should have valued myself a lot more.

That is probably enough for now. But if you are one of those burnt-out professionals sitting at home right now, there are two things to remember. You are not useless. And you are not alone.


Weirdly Normal – The City and the City

The question becomes not, how the hell is all this going to be explained but, what do human beings have to do to survive this imposed reality?


David Morrissey stars in The City and the City (BBC)

Borders are a mundane daily reality for millions, yet retain a sense of deep weirdness. It’s a paradox pushed to extremes in  The City and the City, now a BBC TV serial starring David Morrissey.

China Miéville’s dystopian fantasy – if such it is – reads like a rather dull police procedural, until the final lines of the first chapter when the protagonist notices and then “unsees” what appears to be a perfectly ordinary elderly woman. It’s the first indication that normal rules don’t apply in Besźel, the down-at-heel, vaguely Eastern European city where he lives. Gradually we piece together what appears to be impossible. The city has a twin, Ul Qoma, occupying exactly the same geographical space. But nobody is allowed to acknowledge this. Inhabitants are conditioned from birth to deliberately avoid seeing it, as are their opposite numbers across the boundary. It is a brutally enforced, State-sponsored act of mass hallucination.

Okay, we think, this is weird. We are in for a wild ride here. But the more we think about it, the more parallels with everyday normality seem to appear. We play along, expecting things to become trippier, or at least to get some explanation of how this extraordinary situation developed. Yet the tone of the narrative remains defiantly mundane. Our guide, the taciturn Inspector Tyador Borlú, doesn’t bat an eyelid as he describes the day to day reality of living in a place where you walk down a street navigating around people from another city whose presence you could be locked up for acknowledging, and (a particularly haunting example) he feels a frisson of unease when he notices a familiar street of crumbling buildings reflecting back light from the glass and steel skyscrapers of its unacknowledged neighbour. The question becomes not, how the hell is all this going to be explained but, what do human beings have to do to survive this imposed reality?

The best fantasy, like the best satire, knows it is best not to exaggerate too much. A grounded, intricately described world that differs from our own in just one or two respects, perhaps simply in a matter of intensity or degree, is often the scariest and most intriguing. After a while the reader starts to accept its normality and even make comparisons with life in what we collectively call, “the real world.” In fact, the real world is full of borders. Some look very odd on a map, such as the shape of Norway or Chile, but make perfect sense when natural topography is taken into account. Others appear utterly arbitrary, but developed as the least-worst solution to decades of lethal and bitter conflict that could flare up again if anyone poked the hornets’  nest. And such arbitrariness may, with the passage of time, create its own self-reinforcing visible divisions. Many years of malnutrition has left the citizens of North Korea stunted, several inches shorter than their neighbours in the South. Economic gulfs open up between adjoining communities, apparently trapping one in a technological or social time warp. Languages that were once similar become mutually unintelligible.

But borders retain their fascination, particularly ones that run directly through human communities that once were united. They remain the subtext of every unspoken, carefully navigated conversation. What seems like an absurdist joke – a house with the front door in Northern Ireland and the back door in the ROI, can quickly turn nasty. A few years ago I visited Cyprus. It was, in every obvious respect, a relaxing trip. Except I never really did relax. I couldn’t stop thinking about the place’s tragic history, the community just a few miles away that might as well be on another world. The ruined luxury tourist hotels of Greek-speaking Varosha, a suburb of Famagusta locked up and left to rot since 1974 while tourists sunbathe just yards away, has haunted me ever since.

Mieville loves to write about cities, and they don’t have to be formally politically divided to be shaped by invisible boundaries. One of the first things you learn when you visit an unfamiliar conurbation is where the no-go areas are. Cross a street, and suddenly you feel unsafe. People look at you in a different way – or are you imagining it? Your language, gestures, maybe even your clothing, mark you out as suspect. And the barriers imposed by social inequalities, even in a theoretically stable state, can be surreal. Ordinary Londoners crammed into substandard, overpriced flats walk daily past billboards depicting sterile, idealised communities of unaffordable and often empty apartments. Don’t think about it too hard, it’ll do your head in. Keep your head down, head for the tube, don’t dwell on the body on the pavement inside the sleeping bag.

In the trope-driven Hollywood narrative, there is always a band of brave rebels fighting against segregation, borders, state-imposed realities. But what if we need borders? What if the fearsome secret police were the good guys, keeping us safe? Is that really so weird? UN peacekeepers, in Cyprus and elsewhere, are armed. And which is preferable – a peaceful, stable society where the vast majority of people just want to keep their heads down and carry on undisturbed by local ethnic tensions, or one where people think and speak freely and they flare up into dangerous conflict?

Our daily reality is composed of the world view we sign up to, consciously or unconsciously, sometimes imposed by brutal State repression, more frequently by unspoken mutual consent. All that Miéville does in The City and The City is to dial up the tension and the absurdist level a notch or two. It makes for a challenging read.

canary wharf

Contrasting skylines at Canary Wharf, London (The Guardian)

Through Northern Irish eyes – “a portrait of love’s complexity”

It’s becoming clear that there are some people in English politics who would value a clean Brexit more than maintaining peace in Northern Ireland. Why isn’t this getting more press coverage? We may speculate, but surely one reason is that, to be honest, Northern Ireland doesn’t really register in a lot of people’s minds as an important place. A generation has grown up now without nightly reports of atrocities on the streets of Belfast. And many of us would rather not contemplate the intricacies of the province’s politics, believing vaguely that if they really wanted to “they could sort it out.”

I’m not entirely guiltless here myself, though I do remember the IRA blowing up the centre of Manchester, fortunately without loss of life. I don’t go out of my way to read about the Troubles, but recently Bernard MacLaverty’s latest novel, Midwinter Break sneaked in under my radar. I bought it because I’m middle-aged and long-married, and his story of a couple like that on a short holiday to Amsterdam sounded like something I could relate to. I didn’t realise it was about the Troubles at all. But it is, and I admit with some shame that for the first time, after reading it, I felt some empathy with the people who had to live through them.

Gerry and Stella live in Scotland now, but spent most of their adult lives in Belfast. Stella grew up in poverty, Gerry in relative comfort, but both bear the stigma of being part of a minority. Stella remembers her large family losing a much-needed council house to a less needy Protestant family. Gerry lived and worked for years with bombs going off around him. And it becomes clear that they both continue to be affected by a life-changing incident, one that was very much of its place and time.

Marriages sometimes survive for decades because the people in them have learned to navigate around contentious areas. There are elephants in the room left unmentioned by tacit mutual consent. We see the dynamic clearly here – Gerry’s drinking is out of control, he pretends he’s hiding it from Stella, knows that she knows, but she hides the fact that she knows and is contemplating leaving him because he won’t confront it. And Stella is not simply a cradle Catholic, but an increasingly devout one. Gerry is frightened, and increasingly jealous of his wife’s faith, yet understands the need she has of it. Meanwhile, they rub along like all ageing couples, tolerant of each other’s foibles, resenting yet needing the rough edges of human interaction.

Holidays have a way of bringing such situations to a head. Trapped in a bland hotel room by icy weather and a tiredness that speaks of advancing age, determined to enjoy themselves yet somewhat adrift and always aware of the way a partner will respond or react, feeling one ought to make an effort even though excellent English is universally spoken, Gerry and Stella find the gulf widening between them impossible to overlook. Drastic action needs to be taken. But they are what their lives have made them, and ultimately they understand one another better than anyone else could. When illusions crumble, they are there to break one another’s fall.

It’s a quiet masterpiece. Very little happens outwardly but MacLaverty is a master of small but vital detail. He reveals his character’s secrets slowly and creates increasing tension as we circle around what we’d rather not know, and what they wish had not happened. By the last page, without any didactic special pleading, I was far more aware than I had been of how precious the Good Friday Agreement is, and the trauma that continues to haunt the lives of those who experienced life without it.

Midwinter Break reviewed in The Irish Times