|A Year With William Trevor | #WilliamTrevor2023|
Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 195 pages; 2014.
The first Sunday of the month means it’s time to review another William Trevor book as part of A Year With William Trevor, which I am co-hosting with Cathy from 746 Books.
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I picked up his 1976 novel The Children of Dynmouth, but it didn’t take long for me to feel that I was on familiar William Trevor turf in which he takes a seemingly ordinary character with eccentric traits and lets them loose in a confined setting, such as a pub (Mrs Eckdorf in O’Neill’s Hotel), boarding house (Miss Gomez and the Brethren) or hospital ward (Elizabeth Alone), to see what will unfold.
In this case, it’s a lonely teenage boy called Timothy Gedge, who is obsessed with a serial killer from the past, and the setting is a small village where everyone knows everyone else and therefore can’t escape or ignore the lad.
A personality transformation
Initially, Timothy comes across as friendly and helpful, even charming. He’s quite comfortable around adults and able to engage in proper conversations with them. And the adults in the small coastal town of Dynmouth seem happy to have him around to help with odd jobs and errands.
He’d seemed an engagingly eccentric child, solitary in spite of his chattering and smiling, different from other children.
But as the narrative progresses it becomes clear that Timothy is socially intrusive, can’t take no for an answer and gets on people’s nerves. In the case of two 12-year-olds, Kate and Stephen, whom he befriends, his cloying attentiveness terrifies them. In fact, Kate believes he is “possessed by devils” and runs crying to the local reverend demanding he do something about it.
If you believed he was possessed, she whispered between her sobs, everything was explained.
Timothy’s transformation from a well-meaning teenager to a person who frightens others through inappropriate and unwelcome behaviour forms the heart of this very fine novel.
Search for fame
It all begins with the promise of an Easter talent show in the village. Timothy has big plans to be the stand-out act. He daydreams about TV presenter Hughie Green discovering him and putting him on the TV show Opportunity Knocks.
He starts to badger local villagers for the props he requires, which include a pair of curtains, a bathtub and a wedding dress. That’s because his act is going to be based on the English serial killer George Joseph Smith who became infamous for his “brides in the bath” murders in the early 1900s.
His frequent hassling of people for the bits and bobs he needs turns him into a serious pest. But most villagers are too polite to tell him to go away. They tolerate him — up to a point.
Mr Plant, the local publican, who agrees to let him take an old tin bath rusting in the back yard, wonders if Timothys’s mother had “dropped the boy when he was a baby”:
You heard that kind of thing, a kid’s head striking the edge of something when the kid was a couple of months old and the kid never being normal. […] The Gedge boy seemed intent on something […] with a gruesome flavour, murders taking place in a bath. Sick they called it nowadays, and sick it most certainly was. In his entire life, he estimated, he’d never heard anything like it.
The village spy
While Timothy’s motivations are never fully explained (that isn’t Trevor’s style; he leaves it to his readers to work things out for themselves), his behaviour changes over time. He becomes increasingly obsessed with murders and murderers, particularly within marriage.
When he spies on neighbours he often sees things he shouldn’t, and when he reveals these closely guarded secrets he is oblivious to the harm he may cause.
He looked in people’s windows […] He followed people about. He listened to people’s conversations. He harassed people with jokes that weren’t funny.
His vivid imagination often runs away with him and he puts two and two together to come up with five. The consequences of this go beyond just a little harmless tittle-tattle…
Of the early Trevor novels I have now read, The Children of Dynmouth is probably my favourite. While he explores many of the same themes — marginalised people in a world that doesn’t quite know how to deal with them, the nature of evil and madness, and the tragicomic absurdity of life — this one really ratchets up the tension and the narrative doesn’t necessarily go in the direction you think it might.
The machinations of small-town life and the interconnectedness of residents are paramount. In fact, Dynmouth, nestled on the Dorset coast, with its curving promenade, modest pier and grey-brown cliffs, is a character in its own right.
His human characters are, as ever, brilliantly realised — and it is through their relationship with Timothy that we see them being tested and pushed to the limits. Who will crack first? Will it be the kindly vicar Mr Featherstone or his wife Lavinia who runs the local nursery? Perhaps Commander Abigail and his long-suffering wife, who invite Timothy to supper once a week, will be the ones to finally tell him to go away and never come back. Or maybe Mr and Mrs Blakley, who are minding step-siblings Kate and Stephen while their newly married parents are off on honeymoon, will step up to the mark.
The Children of Dynmouth won the Whitbread Award (the precursor to the Costa Book Awards) in 1976. It was shortlisted for the Booker Prize that same year. Apparently, it was also adapted for BBC Two in 1987. (I’m not sure I’d want to see it.)
For other takes on this novel, please see reviews by Cathy at 746 books, Jacqui at Jacqui’s Wine Journal and Ali at HeavenAli.
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 reviewed ‘Nights at the Alexandra’.
♥ Next month Cathy plans to review ‘Felicia’s Journey’ and I plan to review the short story collection ‘A Bit on the Side’.