|A Year With William Trevor | #WilliamTrevor2023|
Fiction – Kindle edition; Penguin; 281 pages; 2015.
William Trevor’s fifth novel Mrs Eckdorf in O’Neill’s Hotel was first published in 1969. It was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1970.
It carries the black humour married with pathos that marks his early work. It also features a cast of truly eccentric characters, none more so than the titular Mrs Eckdorf who is, quite frankly, one of the most bizarre (and annoying) people I have ever come across in fiction.
A house of ill repute
The story is set in central Dublin, specifically a once-plush hotel that is now better known as a house of ill repute.
Mrs Eckdorf, an English-born woman who resides in Germany (having married a rich German), arrives in Ireland to visit the hotel. She’s a photographer by profession and she wants to satisfy her curiosity: she had been told a story about the hotel by a barman on an ocean liner and it has intrigued her ever since. She’s convinced something tragic happened that changed the fortunes of O’Neill’s and she wants to hear all about it.
When she arrives she discovers that Mrs Sinnott, the deaf-mute owner, is about to celebrate her 92nd birthday. This is the perfect opportunity for Mrs Eckdorf to interrogate her under the pretence of photographing proceedings for a lavish coffee table book.
She moves into the hotel without having made a booking and then tries to ingratiate herself with its motley cast of characters. They include Mrs Sinnott’s feckless 58-year-old son, Eugene, who is addicted to drink and gambling on the horses; O’Shea, the loyal hotel porter, whose faithful greyhound follows him everywhere; Eddie Trump, the barman in the hotel’s Excelsior Bar; Morrissey, a man in his mid-thirties, who is a pimp and uses the hotel’s rooms for his clients’ “appointments”; Agnes Quin, who sleeps with men for money; and Father Hennessey, the local Catholic priest.
‘As mad as a hatter’
It’s not an easy ride. They think she’s “as mad as a hatter”. Or, as Eugene says:
‘Your woman above in the hotel has a touch of the sawdust about her.’
‘Is that what she is?’ said Agnes Quin. ‘Out of Duffy’s Circus or something?’
‘Ah no, no.’ Eugene paused […] ‘You could see her on the back of a horse going round in the ring. She’s that type of woman.’
O’Shea has more time for her, believing that she’s here to buy the hotel and he longs for the establishment to return to its glory days, the kind of place that attracted the rich and famous. Mrs Eckdorf does not disabuse him of this notion, using it to try to get information out of him about the tragedy she suspects happened in the past.
‘O’Shea, what happened once in the hall of the hotel?’ He shook his head. The only thing he could remember that was of note, he said, was that a bookmaker called Jack Tyler had once fallen over the bannisters and landed in the hall and had not been hurt. He had not been sober at the time.
When she finally meets Mrs Sinnott she rudely reads the notebooks her visitors use to communicate with her (Mrs Sinnott cannot lipread and does not know sign language), thinking she might find some clues there. When she’s confronted about this, she shrugs it off.
‘I’ve read every page of those exercise-books.’
He stared at her and continued to stare. He said: ‘Those are private conversations. Those are the conversations that people have with Mrs Sinnott.’
‘Yes. And I have read them.’
A funny farce
The book is comprised of set pieces, largely involving Mrs Eckdorf (but not always), that are blackly funny. It’s almost like Mrs Eckdorf doesn’t have a filter between her brain and her mouth, and so she says the most outrageous things, or waffles on in a nonsensical manner. She’s loud and rude and narcissistic.
As the story progresses, it becomes clear that she’s having some kind of mental breakdown and losing her marbles.
But she’s not the only one who’s odd or behaves badly — and that’s what makes the book such a richly comic read.
Mrs Eckdorf in O’Neill’s Hotel is a wonderfully farcical story featuring brilliant characters. It raises issues about madness, manners and declining morals. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
I read this book as part of A Year With William Trevor, which I am co-hosting with Cathy from 746 Books. You are invited to join in using the hashtag #WilliamTrevor2023. To find out more, including our monthly reading schedule, please click here.
♥ This month Cathy is reviewing ‘The Boarding House’. I reviewed this same book in 2019. You can read my review here.
♥ Next month Cathy plans to review ‘The Love Department’ and I plan to review ‘Miss Gomez and the Brethren’.