|A Year With William Trevor | #WilliamTrevor2023|
Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 264 pages; 2015.
Reading William Trevor’s books in chronological order is proving to be an interesting exercise because Miss Gomez and the Brethren bears many striking similarities to Mrs Eckdorf in O’Neill’s Hotel, the novel immediately preceding it.
Both revolve around intriguing female characters, outsiders thrust into a new community, where they disturb the equilibrium and exhibit signs of eccentricity — although the opening line in this novel puts it more bluntly:
‘In my opinion,’ said Miss Arbuthnot, ‘the child is not in her right mind.’
Both stories also feature disturbing male characters who visit prostitutes or sexually harass women, but Miss Gomez and the Brethren dials up the dark side of human behaviour much more than its predecessor.
A Jamaican orphan
The story, which is set in the late 1960s, begins in Jamaica, where we meet Miss Gomez, an 11-year-old orphan whose parents perished in “the Adeline Street disaster” in which 91 people were burnt alive.
At Arbuthnot Orphanage the legend grew that she was a mad girl, rendered so by the strange circumstance of being the only one spared in the Adeline Street disaster. Occasionally she accepted the legend herself and saw in it the explanation of all that was worrying in her life and her mind. She certainly preferred being mad to being stupid. With such thoughts the child grew up. As the years went by, her legs became excessively long; thin and dark, like autumn twigs. She was troublesome, the staff continued to repeat, because of some streak in her: she took no interest, she didn’t ask normal questions like other children. She overheard them talking about her and didn’t much mind when they were unpleasant about her.
This inability to fit in gets worse when Miss Gomez emigrates to England as a young woman — part of the Windrush generation — and finds herself in London, where everyone seems to be suspicious of black people. She has a succession of menial jobs before she lands a lucrative position as a “dancer” in a Soho club where she’s told that a “black girl naked in glasses […] was an excitement for all-white afternoon clients”. This later paves the way for a short stint as a prostitute in “Mrs Idle’s pleasure house”.
But then Miss Gomez is saved by religion when she answers an ad placed by the Church of the Brethren of the Way back in Tacas, Jamaica. A postal correspondence ensues with the Church founder, Reverend Lloyd Patterson, who encourages her to pray for criminals she reads about in the daily newspapers.
Miss Gomez becomes rather evangelical in this pursuit, and when she takes a job as a cleaner at the last two occupied buildings — the Thistle Arms and nearby Bassett’s Petstore — on a South London street earmarked for demolition, her “God bothering” is ratcheted up to the point where she predicts a “sex crime” that attracts the attention of the police.
A cast of motley characters
At Crow Street we get introduced to a small collection of odd characters — Mr and Mrs Tuke, who run the Thistle Arms, and the three people who live with them: their teenage daughter Prudence; Mr Batt, their 81-year-old lodger and veteran of the First Wolrd War; and Alban Roche, a young man who had previously been convicted as a peeping Tom but now works at the pet shop at the end of the street. Mrs Bassett, the pet shop owner, is a secondary character, as is Atlas Flynn, an Irish labourer who has a “thing” for Mrs Tuke and won’t take no for an answer, even though he knows she is married.
The increasingly derelict Crow Street is almost a character in its own right, providing a sufficiently creepy and isolated backdrop for the drama that unfolds when Miss Gomez infiltrates the street’s motley collection of residents.
Indeed, the street’s changing fortunes could be seen as a metaphor for the larger societal changes that are in play. London’s population is changing. There’s a steady influx of Irish labourers rebuilding the suburbs, and black immigrants are pouring in from the Caribbean.
Racism is rife. For example, Mrs Tuke claims she’s scared of Miss Gomez because she’s a “savage” (I will spare you other racist jibes because they’re offensive but Trevor is always careful to show it is his characters and not him expressing these abhorrent views.)
And there’s always the hint of escalating crime and violence. Miss Gomez, of course, is on a mission to pray for those committing such acts, and her scouring of the newspapers to find people to pray for elicits this:
Another judge, trying another case, said that in his opinion there was sickness everywhere. A woman couldn’t go out to post a letter without running the risk of God alone knew what. There were people walking the country’s streets and byeways who shouldn’t be walking anywhere. There were lunatics abroad and people obsessed with murder, violence, and sexual cruelty. His own niece had been insulted on a tube train. He’d heard of a woman who’d received a telephone call from a man who put intimate proposals to her. In public places advertisements were obscenely defaced, radio and television brought filth into decent folks’ sitting-rooms. In a hotel in Scotland he’d had to walk from a television lounge because of the one-track nature of a late-night show. Women with drinks in their hands, he said, had been sitting in the television lounge laughing.
Admittedly, Miss Gomez and the Brethren does head into some dark territory, but it’s all implied rather than outlined in detail — Trevor knows when to reign it in — but of his early novels, this is definitely the most sombre. And while there are occasional moments of black comedy, on the whole, it paints a rather unsavoury picture of human nature…
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 ‘The Love Department’. I reviewed the same book in 2019. My review is here.
♥ Next month Cathy plans to review ‘The Hill Bachelors ’. and I plan to review ‘Elizabeth Alone’.