‘The Boarding House’ by William Trevor

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.

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15 thoughts on “‘The Boarding House’ by William Trevor

    • Yes, until reading this one and The Old Boys I had no idea he did black comedy. I’ve just read his third novel, The Love Department, which is more of the same and my favourite of the three. Will try to review before the month is out!

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  1. Oh, that’s interesting! It sounds great, but it’s a good point about not connecting with the characters. Even the best books or the weirdest ones need to really make that connection somehow, or else the reading
    experience pales. But I think I would give this one a look if I was going to explore Tevor’s books.

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    • I think the lack of connection is more my fault than Trevor’s… there’s loads of interesting characters in it, but I was on holiday when I read it and was probably in need of something a little less taxing to read… I struggled to keep up with who was doing what to whom because I was only reading this in short spurts rather than a longer sitting and I almost feel as if the story might have benefited if I had put in longer shifts, if that makes sense.

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  2. I tend to like books with a host of annoying characters. I mean it’s entertaining to read about them but I would find it annoying to actually be in their company. The Boarding House was great. I also read Mrs Eckendorff in O’Neill’s Hotel which was even more strange. Both were from the library alongside The Love Department so I’ll be interested to see what you made of that one before I read it.

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    • Me too, Jonathan, and I especially like books like this, set in boarding houses or hotels, that enable a mix of types who wouldn’t normally be in company together. It’s years since I read this one, but I really liked it.

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    • I do love books set in boarding houses for that very reason. But as I just pointed out to Kaggsy (above) I was on holiday when I read this and my brain was kind of in neutral and just couldnt keep up with all the shenanigans going on in the pages of this novel. I’m looking forward to reading Mrs Eckendorff in O’Neill’s Hotel at some point as I’m planning on reading all his novels now… preferably in the order in which he wrote them. The Love Department, by the way, was BRILLIANT!

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  3. Great review, Kim – and thanks for the link to my piece, very kind of you. I love your description of this as an Ealing comedy underpinned by pathos – that’s very true! It’s been interesting to read some of these early novels by Trevor, just to see how he started his writing career back in the ’60s.

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    • His early novels (I’ve now read the first three, yet to review The Love Department) have been a bit of a revelation to me… had no idea he did black comedy! Hope to read many more before the year is out!

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  4. This author is new to me – I’ve come across his name a few times now through the Reading Ireland challenge – and his work sounds intriguing. Great review.

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    • Pleased to have introduced you to a new author, Michael. He died in 2016 but he left a rich legacy of amazing novels and short stories. Up until recently I had only read his latest work, which is very Irish and often sad, so it came as quite a surprise to find his early work set in London and darkly humorous. Hope you get a chance to read him at some point.

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  5. I have loved William Trevor, and this one sounds especially enticing. Irish authors are divine, and here I’m also thinking of Anne Enright and Donal Ryan. You made me want to pick this up straight away. (p.s. I’m so glad you connect with me on the necessity of thrillers!)

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  6. Pingback: Reading Ireland Month Week Two round-up!

  7. with only two William Trevor books under my belt I am fairly new to this author. I’ve loved both books. Would love to get my hands on this one!

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