A Year With William Trevor

Introducing a Year With William Trevor

William Trevor (1928-2016) was an Irish writer who left behind an amazing legacy — dozens of novels, novellas, short stories and plays — for us to enjoy. 

On the occasion of the 95th anniversary of his birth, what better way to celebrate William Trevor’s work than by spending a year reading it?

That’s why in 2023 I am joining forces with Cathy from 746 Books to spend “A Year with William Trevor“. Between the two of us, we think we can cover a good chunk of his writing over the course of 12 months — and we’d love you to join in!

We have come up with a proposed reading schedule and we’ll be posting our reviews in the first week of every month,  commencing in January 2023.

MONTH CATHY KIM
JAN The Old Boys Cheating at Canasta (short stories)
FEB The Boarding House Mrs Eckdorf in O’Neill’s Hotel
MAR The Love Department Miss Gomez and the Brethren
APR The Hill Bachelors (short stories) Elizabeth Alone
MAY Nights at the Alexandra The Children of Dynmouth
JUN Felicia’s Journey A Bit on the Side (short stories)
JUL Death in Summer Other People’s Worlds
AUG The Mark-2 Wife (short stories) Fools of Fortune
SEP The Story of Lucy Gault The Silence in the Garden
OCT Excursions in the Real World (memoir) After Rain (short stories)
NOV Two Lives Two Lives
DEC Last Stories The Dressmaker’s Child 
A Year With William Trevor Reading Schedule

Over the years, I have read a handful of Trevor’s books and have loved them all. His work ranges from roaringly funny to quietly devasting, so there’s bound to be something to suit your mood and your taste.

If you are looking for some inspiration, here’s what I have previously read and reviewed:

The Old Boys (1964)
The Boarding House (1965)
The Love Department (1966)
Nights at the Alexandra (1987)
Felicia’s Journey (1994)
Death in Summer (1998)
The Story of Lucy Gault (2002)
Love and Summer (2009) and
Last Stories (2018)

Cathy has reviewed:

The Children Of Dynmouth. (1976)
After Rain (1996) and
Love and Summer (2009)

I’m looking forward to reading more of his work and filling in the gaps, as it were, as well as following Cathy’s reviews and seeing how she reacts to some of the books I have already read.

If you decide to join in, whether on your own blog or social media accounts, please tag us both and use the hashtag #WilliamTrevor2023.

Do let us know in the comments below if you are keen to take part or perhaps recommend a favourite William Trevor book. We can’t wait for the year-long celebration to begin!

6 Degrees of Separation

Six Degrees of Separation: From ‘Rodham’ to ‘Tampa’

Six degrees of separation logo for memeIt’s the first Saturday of the month, which means it’s time to participate in Six Degrees of Separation, a book meme that is hosted by Kate from booksaremyfavouriteandbest.

The starting point is:

‘Rodham’ by Curtis Sittenfeld (2020)

I haven’t read Rodham, but I know it’s based on Hilary Clinton and imagines what might have happened to the trajectory of her life had she not met and married Bill Clinton. Another book that takes a real person and fictionalises their life is…

Beatlebone by Kevin Barry

‘Beatlebone’ by Kevin Barry (2015)
This brilliantly inventive, funny, sad and wise novel fictionalises a short period in John Lennon’s life.  You don’t need to be a Beatles fan to enjoy it, because it’s a glorious adventure tale and the 37-year-old man at the heart of it could be almost anyone going through a personal and creative crisis.

Another book that is based on a real person, albeit someone who isn’t famous, is…

‘Annie Dunne’ by Sebastian Barry (2002)
This eloquent, heartfelt novel is about two children who go to stay with their aunt one summer in the late 1950s. That aunt, Annie Dunne, is actually Sebastian Barry’s own aunt — and Barry, himself, is the four-year-old boy in the story. Annie is not an easy person to like: she struggles with jealousy and rage, and is cantankerous and difficult. But her heart is in the right place.

Another book featuring a main character who is cantankerous and difficult is…

‘Amongst Women’ by John McGahern (1991)
Shortlisted for the 1990 Booker Prize, this is about an Irishman holed up at home in his dying days, surrounded by his three adult daughters who want him to get better despite the fact the relationship between them all is very strained. McGahern depicts Moran as all-too-human, someone who is so emotionally starved that you can feel nothing but pity for him. It’s a wonderfully realised portrait of an Irish Catholic family headed by a widower who manipulates his children using violence, emotional blackmail and an obstinate refusal to do anything that is not on his own terms.

Another book about a domineering, brutal father is…

‘The Book of Emmett’ by Deborah Forster (2010)
Set in working-class Melbourne, this story follows the lives of one family between the late 1960s and the present day. The central figure in the novel is Emmett Brown, an abusive, alcoholic father of four children, whose violent behaviour has long-lasting repercussions on his family. The book opens on the day of Emmett’s funeral. Another book that begins with a funeral is…

‘Death in Summer’ by William Trevor (1999)
In this rather dark story by one of my favourite writers, a widower interviews several young women in his search for a nanny to look after his baby daughter. One of the nannies he rejects develops an unhealthy obsession with him: she essentially becomes his stalker. 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 the woman’s motivations, which makes the book difficult to put down.

Another book about a woman who develops an unhealthy relationship and is similarly creepy is…

‘Tampa’ by Alissa Nutting (2013)
This book is quite outrageous and won’t be for everyone, seeing as it is about a female teacher grooming young male students for her sexual pleasure. It charts eighth grade English teacher Celeste Price’s obsession with a teenage student, Jack Patrick, and it’s fascinating and horrifying in equal measure, the literary equivalent of a car crash.

So that’s this month’s #6Degrees: from a book about Hilary Clinton, to a story about a female teacher who is a paedophile, linked via a fictional story about John Lennon, a cantankerous auntie, a dying man, an abusive father and a widower stalked by the potential nanny he rejects. How dark this all sounds, but honestly, I heartily recommend each and every one of these titles.

Have you read any of these books? Care to share your own #6Degrees?

Book lists

16 books for 16 years of blogging

Sometime this week marks the 16th birthday of this blog. (I’m not sure of the definite date, only that it was the first week of March 2004.)

To celebrate the occasion I thought I’d create a special list, choosing an influential book for every year I’ve been blogging.

Each of the 16 books I have chosen left a lasting impression on me in some way, either by taking me into new reading territory or introducing me to a new favourite author.

Without further ado, here is my list arranged in chronological order beginning with 2004.

Year: 2004
Book: ‘Towards the end of the Morning’ by Michael Frayn
What it is about: A comedy of manners featuring two Fleet Street journalists in the 1960s who spend most of their time in the pub wishing they could break into the more lucrative business of television reporting.
How it influenced me: It opened my eyes to a whole new “genre” of books about newspaper journalists. I’ve read quite a few since then and have a list of my favourite 10 here.

Year: 2005
Book: ‘Three to see the King’ by Magnus Mills
What it is about: An allegory exploring whether the grass is greener on the other side.
How it influenced me: Reading this strange, quirky book turned me into a lifelong Magnus Mills fan. I’ve read all of his novels since then. You can read those reviews here.

The Barracks by John McGahern

Year: 2006
Book: ‘The Barracks’ by John McGahern
What it is about: A former nurse in war-torn London returns to rural Ireland, where she marries a policeman much older than herself and becomes stepmother to three children. When she develops breast cancer, she hides the diagnosis from everyone bar the local priest.
How it influenced me: After reading this book it made such an impression on me I went out and bought McGahern’s entire back catalogue. That same year I read two more by him. He promptly became my favourite writer. I even went to County Leitrim, where McGahern was from, to hunt out haunts mentioned in his novels and his memoir.

Year: 2007
Book:  ‘The Blackwater Lightship’ by Colm Toibin
What it is about: Three generations of Irishwomen, estranged for years, reluctantly join forces to look after one of their own who has a serious life-threatening illness.
How it influenced me: It turned me into a life-long Toibin fan and I’m slowly but surely making my way through his backlist. This is what I have reviewed so far.

Tarry Flynn

Year: 2008
Book:
‘Tarry Flynn’ by Patrick Kavanagh 
What it is about: This is a joyous bittersweet novel about a bachelor farmer in rural Ireland in the 1930s.
How it influenced me: It opened my eye to the concept of “rural novels”, especially ones about farming, which I have sought out ever since.

Merry go round in the sea by randolph stow

Year: 2009
Book: ‘The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea’ by Randolph Stow
What it is about: A gentle coming-of-age story set in Geraldton, Western Australia during the Second World War.
How it influenced me: I loved this book so much I actually read it twice in a year. It also made me want to read his entire back catalogue, but at the time most of it was out of print. Fortunately, Text Classics has since rectified this and I have them all lying in wait.

Year: 2010
Book: ‘This Human Season’ by Louise Dean
What it is about: Set in Belfast at the height of The Troubles, this profoundly moving story looks at both sides of the “dirty protest” carried out by political prisoners held in The Maze prison.
How it influenced me: As well as making me want to read more books by Louise Dean, it encouraged me to seek out more novels from Northern Ireland. Through this exploration, I have discovered the likes of David Park and Deidre Madden.

Devotion of Suspect X

Year: 2011
Book:  ‘The Devotion of Suspect X’ by Keigo Higashino
What it is about: This is an extraordinary crime novel that bucks the normal conventions of the genre: we know from the outset who has committed the crime, how they did it and who has helped cover it up, but we don’t know the steps taken to protect the real murderer.
How it influenced me:  This book got me into Japanese crime fiction, including several by Higashino, as well as wider Japanese literature.

Plainsong by Kent Haruf

Year: 2012
Book: ‘Plainsong’ by Kent Haruf 
What it is about: Set in rural Colorado in the 1980s, this gorgeously bittersweet story follows the trials and tribulations of a handful of diverse but interesting characters, including two old bachelor brothers, who run a farm and take in a pregnant teenager kicked out of home.
How it influenced me: This book rocketed straight into my all-time favourite reads. I loved its rural setting (see Tarry Flynn above) and its eccentric, warm-hearted characters, but most of all I loved the eloquent and elegant prose style. I have since read all of Haruf’s backlist. Sadly, his death a few years ago means there’s no more left for me to read.

Year: 2013
Book: ‘Of Human Bondage’ by W. Somerset Maugham [not reviewed]
What it is about: This doorstep of a novel follows the life and times of an orphan with a club foot who is raised by a strict and religious uncle in the English provinces, but flees, first to Germany, then to Paris, before settling in London to study medicine. It’s a profoundly moving book because it shows what happens to people when there is no welfare state. I loved this book so much I couldn’t bring myself to review it.
How it influenced me: Since reading this book, I’ve been happily working my way through W. Somerset Maugham’s backlist. This is what I have reviewed so far.

Year: 2014
Book: ‘Black and Proud: The Story of an Iconic AFL Photo’ by Matthew Klugman and Gary Osmond [not reviewed]
What it is about: This award-winning book examines racism in sport. It charts the story behind the image that is on its front cover — Aboriginal Australian AFL footballer Nicky Winmar pointing to his chest declaring he was “proud to be black” after enduring racist abuse during a football match on 17 April 1993 — and puts it into the wider context of Australian society.
How it influenced me: I’m not a football fan, but this book proved to be a compelling account of an important issue. I read Anna Krien’s Night Games: Sex, Power and Sport, which is about rape culture in the AFL world, at around the same time and it was equally as compelling. But the Winmar story was the one that sent me off on a new journey exploring indigenous issues, including Stan Grant’s Talking to My Country and Cal Flynn’s Thicker Than Water: History, Secrets and Guilt: A Memoir.

Year: 2015
Book: ‘The Good Doctor’ by Damon Galgut 
What it is about: Set in post-apartheid South Africa, this is the story of two doctors working in a deserted rural hospital who must share lodgings. It is a fascinating portrait of male friendship amid huge societal changes as the “new” South Africa shakes off its dark history.
How it influenced me: This book, with its effortless, dreamy prose, turned me into a Galgut fan. I’ve read four more novels by him since reading this one.

Walking Free by Dr Munjed Al Muderis

Year: 2016
Book: ‘Walking Free’ by Dr Munjed Al Muderis (with Patrick Weaver)
What it is about: The true-life story of an Iranian refugee who was held in Curtin Immigration Detention Centre in the remote Kimberly region of Western Australia. After surviving this hellhole for 10 months, he eventually gained his freedom. He is now one of the world’s leading specialists in osseointegration in which prosthetic limbs are implanted and fused into bone Terminator style.
How it influenced me: This book opened my eyes to Australia’s shameful and inhumane policy of detention for refugees and asylum seekers, and made me more conscious of the issues facing those people seeking new lives against the odds.

Down in the city by Elizabeth Harrower

Year: 2017
Book: ‘Down in the City’ by Elizabeth Harrower
What it is about: Set in Sydney one hot summer, it tells the story of an abusive marriage between two people from opposite ends of the social spectrum.
How it influenced me: Even though I’d read two books by Harrower before, this was the one that made me sit up and pay attention. Her ability to evoke atmosphere and to capture the inner-most workings of the human soul are just brilliant. I am on a mission to read all of Harrower’s work. This is what I’ve read so far.

Lie with me

Year: 2018
Book: ‘Lie With Me’ by Sabine Durrant
What it is about: This book nicely fits into the “holidays from hell” genre. It’s a psychological thriller set on a Greek island but is told from the perspective of a nasty, conniving narrator who you are never quite sure whether to trust.
How it influenced me: I always like a good psychological-thriller-come-page-turner and it’s such a relief to find a new author who you can rely on to offer up a great story. I have since read several more by this author.

Year: 2019
Book:  ‘The Old Boys’ by William Trevor 
What it is about: This is a black comedy about 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 schoolboys to behave — badly! They connive, cheat and backstab each other, all in an outlandish bid to establish who is “top dog”.
How it influenced me: I had previously read quite a bit of Trevor’s later work and I associated him with poignant tales of thwarted love in rural Ireland, but this book showed me that his early work was very different (this was his debut novel): it was set in London and darkly comic. I have since read several more of his earlier novels and hope to work my way through his massive backlist. All my reviews of his work are here.

So, there you have it. These are the most influential books I’ve read in the past 16 years. I’m conscious of the fact that this is a very male-dominated list. But I’m sure that if I compiled this list tomorrow, the books here would probably be different. For now, this will have to do.

Have you read any of this list? Or care to share your own influential reads?

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. 

Book lists

4 books published in 1965

The 1965 Club logoHave you heard about the 1965 Club?

It’s part of a twice-yearly initiative run by Simon at Stuck in a Book and Karen at Kaggy’s Bookish Ramblings in which everyone’s encouraged to read (and review) books published in the same year. This month (22-28 April) the focus is on books first published in 1965. (You can read more about how it works on Simon’s blog.)

If you are considering joining in, I thought it might be useful to create a small list of books I’ve read and enjoyed that were published in 1965 and which should be readily available to purchase or loan.

Here is that list, which has been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname — hyperlinks take you to my full review.

Aunts up the cross by Robin Dalton

‘Aunts Up the Cross’ by Robin Dalton (1965; republished by Text Classics in 2015)
Charming (and often outrageously funny) memoir about growing up in Bohemian Sydney during the 1920s and 30s by the leading UK literary agent of the 1960s.

The Dark by John McGahern — 2008 book cover

‘The Dark’ by John McGahern (1965; republished by Faber in 2008)
Semi-autobiographical novel about an Irish boy’s painful adolescence and his confused, ambiguous relationship with his violent, widower father.

Merry go round in the sea by randolph stow

‘The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea’ by Randolph Stow (1965; republished by Penguin Modern Classics in 2008)
Deeply moving coming-of-age story set in Geraldton, Western Australia during the Second World War by one of Australia’s most under-rated writers.

‘The Boarding House’ by William Trevor (1965; republished by Penguin in 2014)
Ealing-like comedy set in a Wimbledon boarding house peopled by eccentrics and oddballs intent on remaining residents after the death of their live-in landlord.

Have you read any of these books? Can you name any others published in 1965? If you are taking part in the 1965 Club, which book have you chosen to read? I’m planning on reading ‘Stoner’ by John Williams, which was originally published by Viking Press in 1965 and has been languishing in my TBR for at least a decade.

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.