20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2019), Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, short stories, TBR40, Viking, William Trevor

‘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. 

Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, London, Penguin, Publisher, Setting, TBR40, William Trevor

‘The Love Department’ by William Trevor

Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 272 pages; 2014.

As you may have noticed, I’ve been reading a lot of William Trevor’s novels lately — and here’s another one.

First published in 1966, The Love Department was his third novel. Like his two earlier novels — The Old Boys and The Boarding House — it is set in suburban London (Wimbledon, to be precise), has a rather cutting comic element running throughout and stars a cast of suitably eccentric characters, including:

  • Septimus Tuam, a good-looking, seductive man, who charms married women and then runs off with their money;
  • Edward Blakeston-Smith, a 20-something chap desperate to make something of himself, who is hired (in a round-about way) to locate Septimus and stop him in his tracks; and
  • Lady Dolores, a ferociously over-the-top agony aunt in charge of the “Love Department” at a national publication, who hires Edward to find Septimus in order to stop more lovelorn women falling under his spell.

Fast-paced story

The narrative, which moves along at a cracking pace, charts Edward’s often farcical attempts to find his quarry. A nervous, anxious type, he’d much prefer to sit in the office and answer letters from readers, but Lady Dolores refuses to let him pen a word: she wants him out on the street doing old-fashioned detective work to track down the scheming Lothario breaking hearts and ripping off women in the suburbs.

It’s told in a dry, detached manner that only makes the humour — and the dialogue — more pronounced.

The Love Department is essentially a farce filled with uproariously funny moments — there’s one scene involving a pet monkey running amok at a dinner party that had me in stitches — but this is a William Trevor novel, so it’s tempered by pathos and there’s a rich vein of social commentary lying just beneath the surface, too, which examines loneliness, heartache and melancholia. It’s a very fine — and darkly comic — read, one that has proved to be my favourite of his first three novels.

This is my 13th 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.

Author, Book review, England, Fiction, literary fiction, London, Penguin, Publisher, Setting, TBR40, William Trevor

‘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.

Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, London, Penguin, Publisher, Setting, TBR40, William Trevor

‘The Old Boys’ by William Trevor

Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 176 pages; 2014.

The Old Boys was William Trevor’s first novel. It was published in 1964. Having read several of his later novels, such as Death in Summer (1999) and Love and Summer (2009), I can safely say it wasn’t quite what I expected.

For a start, it’s set in suburban London (Trevor is an Irish writer) and is more of a black comedy than a poignant tale of thwarted love (with which I have come to associate him).

It tells the tale of four septuagenarians who all went to boarding school together more than 50 years earlier and behave very much as you would expect a group of immature school boys to behave — badly! They connive, cheat and backstab each other, all in an outlandish bid to establish who is “top dog”.

While the novella is told in the third person, it centres largely on Jaraby, a self-centred old coot, who believes he is going to be elected as president of the Old Boys Association, to which they all belong. But his former school boy associates have other ideas and, whether by accident or design, act to thwart Jaraby’s narcissistic intentions.

The plot moves forward mainly through a series of set pieces, some funnier — and more bizarre — than others, most of which feature quick-witted, snappy dialogue. Many of the conversations that ensue between characters are at cross-purposes and it is this confusion and ambiguity that leads to misunderstandings that are all blackly comic.

Comic tale about marriage and parenthood

As well as being a humorous look at male rivalry and revenge, it’s also a laugh-out-loud look at a marriage between the thoroughly dastardly Jaraby and his long-suffering wife, who he believes is mentally deranged. He goes to extraordinary lengths to have her medically diagnosed as such and yet she appears to be one step ahead of him all the way. (What she does to Jaraby’s pet cat, which she hates, is one of the most memorable — and wicked — elements of the story.)

Their estranged adult son, Basil, who moves back home with a menagerie of budgerigars, adds another dimension to their complicated relationship.

All the characters are well drawn, if somewhat over the top, but this gives Trevor the chance to mine a rich seam of human flaws and foibles. And while The Old Boys is full of amusing moments, the narrative is underpinned by a darker, albeit understated, undertone that demonstrate humanity’s most base tendencies. It’s a book full of laughs, but it is not a happy tale…

This is my 6th book for #TBR40. I bought it second-hand several years ago (as part of a trilogy of his early novels). You can read all my other reviews of his work on my William Trevor page.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2018), Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Penguin, Publisher, Setting, short stories, William Trevor

‘Nights at the Alexandra’ by William Trevor

Nights at the Alexandra by William Trevor

Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 103 pages; 2015.

William Trevor’s Nights at the Alexandra is a bittersweet novella about love, longing and devotion.

Brimming with nostalgia, it is told through the eyes of Harry, a 58-year-old bachelor looking back on his teenage years in provincial Ireland during the “Emergency” (Second World War).

Through Harry’s reminiscences, we learn he comes from a “Protestant family of the servant class which had come up in the world” and he had been expected to work in his father’s timber yard as soon as he finished his schooling.

But when, as a 15-year-old, he met Frau Messinger, a young British woman married to a German man twice her age, Harry’s eyes were opened to an alternative future.

Love at first sight

This is how Harry describes his first meeting with the woman who was to have such a long-lasting impact on his life:

She was an extremely thin, tall woman, her jet-black hair piled high, her eyes blue, her full lips meticulously painted: I had never seen anyone as beautiful, nor heard a voice that made me so deliciously shiver. ‘You looked for a blemish on her hands, on the skin of her neck or her face,’ I wrote in a notebook I kept later in my life. ‘There wasn’t one. I could have closed my eyes and listened to that husky voice for ever.’

Their platonic friendship is formed when she stops Harry in the street one day and asks him to deliver a flat car battery to the garage for her. She then asks him to bring a new one to Cloverhill, the big stone house on the edge of the village, where she lives.

This one request turns into a regular “gig” running errands and delivering packages for Frau Messinger, who often invites Harry into the house for tea, cake and conversation.

The relationship is an intimate but chaste one. She tells him stories about her life and writes him long letters when he’s away at boarding school in England. When his school friends tease him about it, he’s embarrased by their taunts. (“Houriskey wanted to know if I ever got a look about her skirts. At Liscoe grammar school there was a lot of talk like that; all humour was soiled, double meanings were teased out of innocence.”)

It’s only when Harry’s mother discovers that “the woman at Cloverhill” has given him a tie pin that he is forbidden from seeing her, a decision that he later defies.

Taking a stand

Nights at the Alexandra is a book that is as much about being an outsider as it is about growing up and taking a stand against your parents, for the Messingers are refugees, friendless in small town Ireland because everyone assumes they are Jews, and Harry is a Protestant in a largely Catholic country, sent away to England to go to school and expected to work in the family business when he graduates.

When Herr Messinger decides to build his wife a cinema — The Alexandra of the title — he asks Harry to run it. As much as he does not want to work for his father, Harry is torn, because he’s not sure he wants to run a movie theatre either, but later, partly in defiance of his parents but mainly through his love for Frau Messinger, he jumps at the chance to do so.

The story drips with Trevor’s trademark flair for melancholy and missed opportunities, and his prose is typically elegant and elegiac. The book is just 60 pages long but it’s written so tautly, with nary a word wasted, that it feels so much more powerful and authentic than a book, say three or four times longer, might.

It’s the mood of the novella that makes it such a memorable, haunting read, one that lingers in the mind long after the final page has been finished. Poor heartbroken Harry and the kindly Messingers will stay with me for a long time.

Added extras

This edition of Nights at the Alexandra (first published in 1987) comes with two additional short stories — The Ballroom of Romance (first published in 1972) and The Hill Bachelors (first published in 2000) — which carry on the melancholy theme. Both are set on Irish farms in the hills. In the first, Bridie realises her hopes of finding a husband have been dashed now that she’s trapped on the farm looking after her father who has had a leg amputated; and in the second, Paulie returns home to help his widowed mother and reluctantly settles into a new life as a “hill bachelor” when all the women of marriageable age that he courts don’t want to take up with him.

This is my 16th book for #20booksofsummer (yes, I’m still playing catch-up with reviews). I bought this one earlier in the year, attracted by the new livery that Penguin has used to republish all of Trevor’s wonderful stories. I’m mighty tempted to buy the whole set: I’m yet to read anything by this author that I haven’t immediately fallen in love with. You can read all my other reviews on my William Trevor page.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Penguin, Publisher, Setting, William Trevor

‘Love and Summer’ by William Trevor

Love and Summer by William Trevor
Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 221 pages; 2009.

The oppressive nature of village life — in which privacy is virtually non-existent —  comes to the fore in William Trevor’s 2009 novel, Love and Summer, which also explores guilt, forbidden love and the strength we all require to rise above our circumstances.

Set in Rathmoye, a small Irish town “some years after the middle of the last century”, it follows a handful of residents over the course of one fine summer.

Trevor takes his time to introduce them all, chapter by chapter, including: the former librarian Orpen Wren, who seems to have lost his marbles and only talks about people and events from the past as if he is stuck in a time warp; the troubled Miss Connulty, who has taken over running the town’s B&B with her “weasel faced” twin brother, Joseph, upon the death of their community-minded mother; and the hardworking widowed farmer Dillahan and his second wife, Ellie, a foundling who first moved to the farm as a housekeeper, an arrangement organised by the nuns who raised her.

But the equilibrium of Rathmoye — where “nothing happened, its people said” — is disturbed by the arrival of a tweed-clad stranger on a bicycle. He causes a bit of a stir when he turns up on the morning of Mrs Connulty’s funeral asking for directions to the ruins of the local cinema, which he wants to photograph.

His name is Florian Kilderry, “the sole relic of an Italian mother and an Anglo-Irish father”, who has inherited Shelhanagh, a large crumbling house, with its own lake, seven-and-a-half miles from Rathmoye. He cannot afford its upkeep, so his only option is to sell it:

“She’ll fetch a bit, I’d reckon,” the man from the estate agents’ office had said when he’d finished with his tape measure; and the Bank of Ireland thought so too. With the debts paid, there would be enough to live on, if not in splendour at least in comfort for a while. Enough to be a stranger somewhere else, although Florian didn’t yet know where. He had never been outside Ireland.

As Florian goes about getting the house ready for sale — disposing of its contents, including a car — he often travels into the village on photographic excursions (he’s dabbling with it as a potential occupation), and it is here that he strikes up a friendship with Ellie when she’s out and about on her errands. This friendship blossoms into something much deeper and it is this forbidden love affair which forms the heart of this rather genteel novel.

But to dismiss this book as merely a romance would be to do it a disservice.

Trevor is an economical writer, keeping both his prose and his narrative pared back to basics, but his characterisation is superb and the ways in which he draws such a diverse cast together is nothing short of genius. Every character has a back story — Dillahan’s first wife and young child died in a tragic farming accident for which he blames himself, Miss Connulty was “disowned” by her mother following an abortion 20 years earlier, Ellie was raised by nuns who taught her to be chaste and pure, Florian holds a torch for the Italian cousin he no longer keeps in touch with   — and it is these heartaches and desires which play a key role in giving Love and Summer such unexpected strength and power.

Trevor is also superb at capturing the tenets of rural life — the changing seasons, the day-to-day tasks that a farmer must carry out, the routine of keeping a house, the reliance on neighbours and community for help, amongst others — often bringing to mind some of my favourite rural Irish novels, such as John McGahern’s That They May Face the Rising Sun and Patrick Kavanagh’s Tarry Flynn.

There’s no doubt that Love and Summer is a deftly written novel, one that unfolds gently to reveal what it is to be confronted with difficult, heart-rending choices. I loved its quiet beauty and its truthful depiction of rural life and romantic love.

For other takes on this novel, please see KevinfromCanada’s review and Lisa from ANZLitLovers review.

To see reviews of other William Trevor novels on Reading Matters, please visit my William Trevor page.

Author, Book review, England, Fiction, literary fiction, Penguin, Publisher, Setting, William Trevor

‘Death in Summer’ by William Trevor

Death-in-summer

Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 220 pages; 1999.

I don’t know where I got the idea that William Trevor wrote lovely heartwarming stories: my two experiences reading him — Felicia’s Journey (1994) and The Story of Lucy Gault (2002) — have been rather sad and distressing. And Death in Summer is no different.

Mournful beginning

The story, which is set in England, begins with a funeral. (See, it’s sad already.)

Leticia, a new mother, has been killed in a tragic accident. Her husband, the much older Thaddeus, is bereft, even though he never truly loved his wife. He does, however, very much love and adore his young baby, Georgina, and it is to her that all his attention now turns.

Although he lives in a rather grand house (inherited from his parents) and has two servants, the impossibly named Zenobia and Maidment, he feels unable to raise Georgina by himself. So, with the help of his kindly well-to-do mother-in-law, Mrs Iveson, he screens four young women as potential nannies.

As it turns out, none are suitable, and one in particular, Pettie, is the wrong type altogether: she wreaks of cigarettes, shows them a badly typed reference, wears a too-short skirt. Fobbing her off with a £10 note (to cover her train fare to attend the interview), Thaddeus and Mrs Iveson think that will be the end of the matter.

They are wrong.

The story pitts these two hapless, loveless characters against one another. Thaddeus, blind to anything other than his natural state of melancholy, is unaware that Pettie has developed a rather unhealthy obsession with him. And Pettie, ignoring the advice of her devoted friend Albert (they grew up together in a childrens’ home) that she leave well enough alone, rails against the news that Mrs Iveson has become the child’s carer. She will do whatever she can to prove that this is a bad decision and that she should be put in charge instead.

Portrait of a stalker

As a portrait of a disturbed young woman with a penchant for stalking, you will find no better than Death in Summer. While there’s a lovely aching quality to the overall storyline, there’s also an unspoken tension and unease, a kind of creepiness that pervades Pettie’s motivations, which makes the book difficult to put down.

This novel demonstrates what happens when people’s emotional wounds are left to fester unabated over a long period of time. And it shows that no matter where you fit in the social spectrum, we can all be haunted by our pasts. What unites Thaddeus and Pettie, even though they might not know it, is their longing to be loved unconditionally.

This is a richly layered novel in which the back stories for all the characters — the servants; Albert; and Thaddeus’ former lover, the desperate blackmailing Mrs Ferry — are skillfully fleshed out.

Without ever talking down to his readers, Trevor somehow captures that sense of lives being misspent, of all too real human failings, of life’s disappointments and cruelties, of the ways in which people are trapped by circumstance. It is an exceptional achievement.

Author, Book review, England, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Penguin, Publisher, Setting, William Trevor

‘Felicia’s Journey’ by William Trevor

Felicia'sJourney

Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 213 pages; 1994.

William Trevor‘s Felicia’s Journey is a wonderful, heartbreaking tale of a teenage girl’s search for the father of her unborn child. That search takes her from her childhood home in Dublin, Ireland, to the bleak, post-industrial heartland of the British Midlands. Her journey is fraught with difficulty and disaster until she meets the seemingly kindly Mr Hilditch who takes her under his wing. At just 17 years of age, Felicia’s stranger-danger radar seems far from tuned and she naively accepts his assistance.

This perfectly written novel (not a sentence, not a word, is out of place) is an enriching read. Felicia’s character – her naivety, her grit, her determination – is in stark contrast to Mr Hilditch’s smarmy, insidiously creepy, traits.

“Watching” Felicia blindly going on her wild goose chase is difficult enough without having the menacing Mr Hilditch – a catering man in love with food – follow her every move.

Without wishing to spoil the ending for anyone, I can say it is heartbreakingly sad, and some tissues might come in handy.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Penguin, Publisher, Setting, William Trevor

‘The Story of Lucy Gault’ by William Trevor

StoryofLucy

Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 227 pages; 2003.

It is 1921. Ireland is in a state of unrest. Captain Gault and his wife decide to flee their home on the coast and move to England, but their nine-year-old daughter, Lucy, has other ideas. She loves her home so much she doesn’t want to leave. She goes missing and when her clothes are found on the beach her parents assume that she has drowned.

Devastated by grief, they pack up their belongings and head off to Europe to start their lives again. When Lucy is later discovered, still alive but with a bad ankle injury, no one is able to trace her parents.

William Trevor‘s The Story of Lucy Gault — shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2002 — is a gripping account of what happens to a young child unwittingly abandoned by her parents. The writing is stripped-back, almost old-fashioned in a way, but it is never dull. Instead it is magical and fairy-tale like and incredibly evocative of a past era. And Trevor has such a deft way with words that it is often the things that go unsaid that have the most impact.

In many ways this book reminded me of Ian McEwan’s Atonement, in the sense that it is about a young girl who knows that she has done something wrong and then spends the rest of her life trying to atone her guilt. But where McEwan tries to be clever, Trevor never plays games with his readers.

This is an intelligent, mesmerising and moving novel. It is also incredibly, devastatingly sad and I defy any reader not to shed a tear when reading it. This is the first William Trevor story I have read; it won’t be the last.