‘Last Stories’ by William Trevor

Fiction – hardcover; Viking; 224 pages; 2018.

Willam Trevor’s Last Stories are literally that: the last short stories he penned before his death in 2016. They were published posthumously as a handsomely bound collection by Viking last year, and have now been reissued as a paperback by Penguin.

As you may know, Trevor is one of my favourite authors and earlier this year I went through a bit of a phase reading his first three novels: The Old Boys (1964), The Boarding House (1965) and The Love Department (1966). But this is my first foray into his short fiction.

10 tales

There are 10 rather exquisite tales in this collection. Most focus on love — particularly love less ordinary — and are written with a deft eye for detail and a storyteller’s regard for the bittersweet and the unexpected.

There’s a watchfulness at work here, because Trevor is focused on the small happenings in people’s lives, but that is not to say these stories, nor the lives depicted within them, are small. Indeed, it’s often the accumulation of small happenings that leads to bigger things — domestic dramas, marriage break-ups, even death.

As ever when it comes to short story collections, I find it difficult to review them because I’m never quite sure what to focus on and what to leave out. Rather than give you a detailed account of every story, let me single out the one I found most memorable.

The paperback edition

It’s the second story, The Crippled Man, which represents William Trevor at his very best.

In roughly 24 pages he lays out a tale that feels quite run-of-the-mill, of a woman living in an isolated farmhouse with her crippled cousin, whom she cooks and cleans for. But by the time you reach the conclusion, you realise that this is no ordinary tale: it’s slightly creepy and malevolent and has a delightful little twist at the end. I immediately wanted to re-read it again to see what I had missed the first time around.

The story goes something like this. The woman, Martina, is having a long-term love affair with the local butcher. One day, when she’s out visiting him, her cousin hires two men — brothers — to paint the house. He thinks the men are Polish, but they’re actually Roma and have never done a job like this before. The immediate assumption the reader makes is that they are up to no good and that they will rip off the crippled man. This is what Martina thinks too. She is angry at her cousin for making this decision without her input.

The men, however, do a rather good job painting the house, but mid-way through the job they are puzzled by a bizarre change in Martina’s behaviour. She stops bringing them their tea at the agreed times of 11am and 3.30pm and often just leaves a tray on the doorstep for them to find. One day the younger brother spots her through the window “crouched over a dressing-table, her head on her arms as if she slept, or wept”.

Later they realise that they have not heard the voice of the crippled man — who has only paid them half the agreed price —  for quite some time and they’re fearful something has happened to him. They are also fearful that they will not be paid the rest of the money owing them when the job is complete.

The clincher at the end — which I won’t reveal here — is akin to a penny dropping in the well, but Trevor writes in such a deeply understated way it comes as quite a shock that such a calmly told tale could deliver such a deliciously dark blow.

If you’ve not read Trevor before and want to get a feel for his style, I’d recommend reading The Piano Teacher’s Pupil, which is in this collection but has also been published in The New Yorker (which is where I read it first). It showcases to perfection the way in which he tends to focus on people’s unexpectedly dark character quirks and highlights how we often fail to confront those who have wronged us because we can’t quite believe their bad behaviour.

This is my 9th book for #20BooksOfSummer; and my 28th for #TBR40. I treated myself to the hardcover edition for my birthday last year, but that copy is still in London. A few weeks ago I bought it on Kindle — it was the 99p daily deal — so I could read it here in my new home in Fremantle. 

17 thoughts on “‘Last Stories’ by William Trevor

  1. I read The Piano Teacher’s Pupil. I agree it’s good. But you’re better than I am, there’s no way I could write a review that made sense of it. Short stories have an unfinished quality which leaves me unsettled, perhaps that’s why I don’t read them.

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    • Maybe you’re just reading the wrong short stories? Once-upon-a-time I wouldn’t read short story collections but I later found they were perfect for a 20-minute commute. They also make good bed time reading, one story per night, which is kind of how I read this collection.

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  2. I will pick this up at some point I recently got the huge penguin collection of his short stories I was annoyed they didn’t do a booker for him like they did for Banbridge he was shortlisted four times and long list once.

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  3. Such a sad title… I’ve loved everything I’ve read by this author. I notice you haven’t mention The Story of Lucy Gault, maybe you read it before blogging? But if not, do, though it will break your heart.

    I didn’t know that this collection was available, I’m like Bill, short stories (especially contemporary ones) are not my thing, but I do make exceptions. (I’m currently reading Patrick White’s short stories!!) So I shall get me a copy ASAP:)

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  4. Lovely review, Kim. From what I’ve read of William Trevor so far, he has a deep understanding of human nature, complete with all its idiosyncrasies and failings. This book seems to represent a very fitting end to his career, a pitch-perfect collection to bow out on.

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  5. Thanks, Jacqui. He certainly did have a deep understanding of human nature—his writing is so perceptive, and has a bittersweet edge to it. Reading this collection only makes me want to read more of his work.

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  6. Pingback: 20 books of summer 2019 recap – Reading Matters

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