|A Year With William Trevor | #WilliamTrevor2023|
Fiction – Kindle edition; Penguin; 172 pages; 2005.
The title of William Trevor’s short story collection A Bit on the Side might hint at love affairs and adultery, and while there is, indeed, some of that, the real theme that runs throughout is loneliness and solitude.
Most of the 12 stories feature characters dealing with situations in which they are friendless or somehow isolated from the rest of mainstream society. It’s no coincidence, I’m sure, that many are set in provincial Ireland.
And while this book was published toward the latter part of Trevor’s career (it was first published in 2004), it still has all the hallmarks of his earlier work in that it explores the darker side of humanity and offers up a range of characters who are perhaps misguided or selfish or psychologically damaged.
A widow’s relief
The opening story “Sitting with the Dead”, for instance, is about Emily, a woman recently bereaved, who is secretly relieved that her controlling husband, a racehorse trainer with a surfeit of anger, has died but must maintain a mourning wife facade.
When two middle-aged Catholic sisters arrive slightly too late to sit with the dying (as they have made a habit of doing), Emily invites them in for a cup of tea even though she doesn’t know them and doesn’t want the company. But their mere presence invites confession because she’s never had anyone to share her truth with:
‘He married me for the house,’ she said, unable to prevent herself from saying that too. The women were strangers, she was speaking ill of the dead. She shook her head in an effort to deny what she’d said, but that seemed to be dishonesty, worse than speaking ill. […] ‘He married me for the forty acres,’ Emily said, compelled again to say what she didn’t want to. ‘I was a Protestant girl that got passed by until he made a bid for me and I thought it was romantic, like he did himself – the race cards, the race ribbons, the jockey’s colours, the big crowd there’d be. That’s how it happened.’
‘Ah now, now,’ Kathleen said. ‘Ah now, dear.’
A strange date
In “An Evening Out”, probably my favourite story in the collection, a middle-aged man and woman go on their first date, having pre-arranged it via the intriguingly named Bryanston Square Introduction Bureau. They meet at a theatre bar in London because it would be empty when they arrived and therefore there “wouldn’t be the embarrassment of approaches made by either of them to the wrong person”.
But both of them have different agendas. Evelyn, who is lonely following the death of the mother she looked after for years, is now looking for companionship — “marriage did not come into it, but nor was it entirely ruled out” — while Jeffrey, a photographer, is looking for someone with a car who can drive him to photoshoots across town.
He’s also looking for a free meal (with plenty of expensive wine) and manages, by sleight of hand, to get Evelyn to pay for it when he discovers she sold her Nissan a year ago and is therefore of no practical use to him.
A woman’s confession
In “Solitude”, a young girl pushes her mother’s lover down the stairs, a tragedy which brings her parents together but has other consequences: they move out of their grand house in London and spend the rest of their lives cosseting their daughter and wondering about Europe where they take up residence in a succession of hotels.
It’s only when her parents die, both aged in their 80s, that she feels able to confess what she did as a child to complete strangers.
Each time I found my listener, each time across a teashop table or in a park, there was politeness; and moments later there was revulsion. Some traveller killing tedious time in a railway waiting-room would look away and mumble nothing; or on a tram, or in a train, would angrily push past a nuisance. And the whisper of an apology would not be heard.
What’s interesting stylistically about many of these stories (not all) is the way Trevor seems to shun a more straightforward narrative style and opts for an oblique approach.
I often struggled to get an initial handle on the stories — who was who, and who had done what and why, for instance — and had to readjust my expectations. I was not going to be told anything. I was going to be shown. And I might even have to wait until the end of each story for all the information to be revealed so that I could make sense of the whole. Sometimes I even went back and reread a story once I had all the facts to fully understand it.
A Bit on the Side is, therefore, not a collection to rush through. It’s a collection to savour and to take your time with. It’s a collection that will reward the patient reader.
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 ‘Felicia’s Journey’. I have previously reviewed this book, which you can read here.
♥ Next month Cathy plans to review ‘Death in Summer’ and I plan to review ‘Other People’s Worlds’