|A Year With William Trevor | #WilliamTrevor2023|
Fiction – Kindle edition; Penguin; 318 pages; 2015.
I’m unsure what to make of Elizabeth Alone, William Trevor’s seventh novel.
The blurb on my edition is misleading because it sounds like it’s the story of a divorced woman — the Elizabeth of the title — coming to terms with her new circumstances. And while that does form part of the story, Elizabeth isn’t the central figure in the novel.
In fact, there’s no central figure. Instead, there’s a wide cast of protagonists whose lives are drawn together when they meet, albeit briefly, in the Cheltenham Street Women’s Hospital in London.
Those protagonists include:
- Elizabeth (or Mrs Aidallbery, as she is sometimes known), who has been admitted to undergo a hysterectomy, while her 17-year-old daughter Joanne runs off to a commune in Somerset and two younger daughters remain in the care of a Russian housekeeper
- newlywed Sylvie Clapper, whose Irish husband, Declan, is an unreliable chancer and possible conman
- the devoutly religious Miss Samson, who has never married because she has a crimson-coloured birthmark on her face that affects her left eye
- Lily Drucker, who is pregnant but confined to bed because she’s had four miscarriages in the past — she also has a problematic relationship with her overbearing mother-in-law.
There are other subsidiary characters, including Elizabeth’s husband, who now resides in Aberdeen, Scotland, and is dating an American woman, and her old school friend, Henry, a “heavy dog-like man with an elaborately freckled face”, who brews his own beer and fixes vending machines.
And then there’s Kenneth, Lily’s husband, who makes a startling confession to his parents — that he used to sleep with prostitutes — to shock his mother into keeping her distance.
And, of course, there are the sisters on the ward, including Sister O’Keefe, “a woman of fifty-one, from Kinsale in Co. Cork, of medium height, plumply made, with a round plain face and blue eyes that reflected sometimes her devotion to the work she had chosen”.
If ever a novel needed a dramatis personae, this was it — there are so many characters in Elizabeth Alone, I found it challenging to keep track of who was who. But Trevor uses this to his advantage, by having characters who might never meet in real life, come together in the institutional setting of the hospital.
Multiple settings and storylines
A secondary setting — the King of England pub — also provides more opportunities for the male characters to meet and interact. Together, this provides ample opportunity to create moments of pure farce (in the pub), and other moments filled with pathos and regret (in the hospital). But there are so many narrative threads and storylines, the book doesn’t hang together as a whole. It’s not a collection of short stories per se, but it certainly tips a nod in that direction.
Interestingly, Elizabeth Alone does feature what I’ve now come to recognise as Trevor’s trademarks: eccentric, slightly mad characters; lonely, often middle-aged men or women; people who are unhappy in their marriage or unlucky in love; constant references to sex pests or men who sleep with prostitutes; petty thieves, conmen and nefarious people; pubs, booze and drunks; orphans or people who have had troubled childhoods; and religious fervour.
These are serious themes but everything is written through a tragicomic lens to add a lightness of touch — and some pure laugh-out-loud moments.
If you’ve not read William Trevor before, this probably isn’t the one to start with, but diehard fans will likely appreciate it.
Elizabeth Alone was first published in 1973.
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 Hill Bachelors’
♥ Next month Cathy plans to review ‘Nights at the Alexandra’ and I plan to review ‘The Children of Dynmouth’.