Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 272 pages; 2014.
The Boarding House is one of William Trevor’s early novels, having been originally published in 1965.
Set in suburban Wimbledon during the 1950s, it tells the story of a disparate group of eccentrics and oddballs living under the one roof who must band together following the death of their landlord, Mr Bird, in order to save their home.
These residents include Rose Cave, who spends all her time knitting; Miss Clerricot, a romantic; Major Eele, who frequents seedy strip clubs; Obd, a Nigerian immigrant who refuses to believe the woman he loves doesn’t love him back and hence resorts to stalkish behaviour; Scribbens, a trainspotter who plays vinyl recordings of steam trains at very high volume, annoying everyone else in the boarding house; and Venables, who has a phobia about all things medical.
The house is also home to two sworn enemies — the prim and proper Nurse Clock and the dodgy Mr Studdy.
Mr Bird himself, it seems, was also a bit of a peculiar character, keeping notes on all his residents and then, from beyond the grave, stirring the pot by leaving his home to Clock and Studdy knowing full well they will fall on each other fighting and the place will fall to rack and ruin.
The twist in the tale comes when Clock and Studdy decide to unexpectedly work together for a secret ulterior motive — they want to turn the boarding house into a profitable aged care facility. This means they must force the current residents to find accommodation elsewhere without ever telling them about their big plan. Together they employ every dirty trick in the book to get each resident to leave one by one.
The book works as a succession of set pieces revolving around the incidents that “encourage” the residents to leave the boarding house and the ways in which Clock and Studdy help to destablise the once happy atmosphere of the house. This gives rise to a mix of situations that either cause hilarity or heartbreak.
The whole tale is very much in the vein of an Ealing comedy but it is underpinned by pathos, for the residents, as kooky and strange as they may be, are at risk of destitution should Clock and Studdy’s underhand plan come to fruition.
All in all, The Boarding House is a fine black comedy, but it’s also a rather marvellous story about humans and their flaws. Not only does it highlight the fact that loneliness, poverty, despair — and criminality — are never far away, it also paints a rather grim picture of suburban London at a particular point in time.
But for all the book’s plus points, not least its wonderfully realised cast of characters and the quick-fire dialogue that brings them so much to life, I struggled to connect with any of the characters and didn’t much feel like cheering on the amoral protagonists of the story. I did, however, let out a loud whoop! when they got their comeuppance!
For another take on this novel, please see Jacqui’s review at JacquiWine’s Journal.
This is my 1st book for Reading Ireland Month, which is hosted by Cathy at 746 Books and Niall at The Fluff is Raging. It is also my 8th book for #TBR40. I bought it second-hand several years ago (as part of a trilogy of Trevor’s early novels). You can read all my other reviews of his work on my William Trevor page.