Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 220 pages; 1999.
I don’t know where I got the idea that William Trevor wrote lovely heartwarming stories: my two experiences reading him — Felicia’s Journey (1994) and The Story of Lucy Gault (2002) — have been rather sad and distressing. And Death in Summer is no different.
The story, which is set in England, begins with a funeral. (See, it’s sad already.)
Leticia, a new mother, has been killed in a tragic accident. Her husband, the much older Thaddeus, is bereft, even though he never truly loved his wife. He does, however, very much love and adore his young baby, Georgina, and it is to her that all his attention now turns.
Although he lives in a rather grand house (inherited from his parents) and has two servants, the impossibly named Zenobia and Maidment, he feels unable to raise Georgina by himself. So, with the help of his kindly well-to-do mother-in-law, Mrs Iveson, he screens four young women as potential nannies.
As it turns out, none are suitable, and one in particular, Pettie, is the wrong type altogether: she wreaks of cigarettes, shows them a badly typed reference, wears a too-short skirt. Fobbing her off with a £10 note (to cover her train fare to attend the interview), Thaddeus and Mrs Iveson think that will be the end of the matter.
They are wrong.
The story pitts these two hapless, loveless characters against one another. Thaddeus, blind to anything other than his natural state of melancholy, is unaware that Pettie has developed a rather unhealthy obsession with him. And Pettie, ignoring the advice of her devoted friend Albert (they grew up together in a childrens’ home) that she leave well enough alone, rails against the news that Mrs Iveson has become the child’s carer. She will do whatever she can to prove that this is a bad decision and that she should be put in charge instead.
Portrait of a stalker
As a portrait of a disturbed young woman with a penchant for stalking, you will find no better than Death in Summer. While there’s a lovely aching quality to the overall storyline, there’s also an unspoken tension and unease, a kind of creepiness that pervades Pettie’s motivations, which makes the book difficult to put down.
This novel demonstrates what happens when people’s emotional wounds are left to fester unabated over a long period of time. And it shows that no matter where you fit in the social spectrum, we can all be haunted by our pasts. What unites Thaddeus and Pettie, even though they might not know it, is their longing to be loved unconditionally.
This is a richly layered novel in which the back stories for all the characters — the servants; Albert; and Thaddeus’ former lover, the desperate blackmailing Mrs Ferry — are skillfully fleshed out.
Without ever talking down to his readers, Trevor somehow captures that sense of lives being misspent, of all too real human failings, of life’s disappointments and cruelties, of the ways in which people are trapped by circumstance. It is an exceptional achievement.