A Year With William Trevor, Author, Book review, England, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Penguin, Publisher, Setting, short stories, Venice, William Trevor

‘Cheating at Canasta’ by William Trevor

A Year With William Trevor | #WilliamTrevor2023


Fiction – Kindle edition; Penguin; 252 pages; 2008.

To kick off ‘A Year With William Trevor‘ — which I am co-hosting with  Cathy from 746 BooksI randomly selected Cheating at Canasta, a collection of short stories that were first published in the Guardian, the New Yorker, the Sewanee Review and Tatler

It proved a perfect introduction to this year-long reading project, because the tales here, so masterfully written, showcase Trevor’s recurring themes: the complexity of family dynamics and relationships between men and women; the darker side of human nature; missed opportunities; and the ways in which the past has a habit of catching up with the future. Fear and shame dominate.

There are 12 stories in this volume, all roughly the same length, some set in Ireland, the country of Trevor’s birth, and some in England, the country where he spent most of his long life. But the title story, “Cheating at Canasta”, is set in Venice, specifically, Harry’s Bar, where a man, who is losing his wife to dementia, returns to the place they both adored and finds his time there disrupted by a younger couple quarrelling on a nearby table.

Young people caught up in events

When the hardcover edition of the book was published in 2007 it garnered mixed reviews, including a rather churlish one by Adam Mars-Jones in the Guardian (which I’m deliberately not linking to) which claimed Trevor couldn’t write about young people very well. I beg to differ.

In “Bravado”, a teenage girl witnesses a deadly assault on a boy she doesn’t know by her boyfriend who does it to impress her, earning himself an 11-year prison sentence in the process. Before her boyfriend is arrested, Aisling knows she should speak up but she’s understandably conflicted, caught between the excitement of her first romantic love and the responsibilities of the adult world she’s yet to fully join. What really holds her back, though, is the fact that she doesn’t want her father to know she went behind his back and kept seeing the boy he had warned her to stay away from.

It’s all resolved in the end, and Aisling does the right thing, but it leaves a long-lasting mark on her:

In a bleak cemetery, Aisling begged forgiveness of the dead for the falsity she had embraced when what there was had been too ugly to accept. Silent, she had watched an act committed to impress her, to deserve her love, as other acts had been. And watching, there was pleasure. If only for a moment, but still there had been.

Petty jealousy and imagined hurts

In ‘The Children’, an 11-year-old girl (and only child), Connie, handles the death of her adored mother with aplomb — “You’ve been a strength, Connie,” her father tells her after the funeral — and quickly adjusts to life without her.

But when her father falls in love with a local woman a few years later and installs her and her two children, one of whom is Connie’s best friend, into the house, Connie’s behaviour changes. She spends more and more time alone, hiding on the roof, which she’s forbidden to climb, to read her late mother’s books.

And in one instant she turns on her soon-to-be step-sister with the cruel words: “This isn’t your house.”  Connie’s sense of betrayal, of a deeply held hurt, petty jealousy and an inability to accept changed circumstances is palpable.

Teenager in danger

And in ‘An Afternoon’, teenage Jasmin meets up with an older man she’s only ever met online. Her naivety is alarming as she spends an afternoon in his company, laps up his attention — “You’re pretty,” he said. “You’re pretty, Jasmin” — accepts the alcohol he offers her and agrees to go back to his house.

Again there was the ripple of excitement. She could feel it all over her body, a fluttering of pins and needles it almost felt like but she knew it wasn’t that. She loved being with him; she’d known she would.

She’s rescued at the last minute — Trevor doesn’t always let bad things happen to his characters — and the sense of relief, for this reader at least, is enormous but hard-earned.

The first is the best

The stand-out story of the collection, however, is the first one, “The Dressmaker’s Child”, which you can read online at the New Yorker, and which I had originally planned to read at the end of the year according to the schedule Cathy and I put together for A Year With William Trevor. (I didn’t know it was in this collection, so I’ll have to substitute that with something else and will let you know in due course.) 

In this story, Cahal, an Irish car mechanic, drives two Spanish tourists to see the “Weeping Virgin of Pouldearg”, a religious icon discredited by locals, and thinks nothing of charging them €50 for the privilege. On the way back to town, he runs over a child, the daughter of the local dressmaker, but does not stop to help. The Spaniards in the back seat are too busy kissing each other to notice the bump in the road.

What enfolds afterwards is a mixture of pure shame and fear and dread as Cathal wrestles with his conscience, even though the body is found not on the road, as expected, but at “the bottom of a fissure, half covered with shale, in the exhausted quarry half a mile from where she’d lived”. 

This strange development is quintessential William Trevor, a writer who likes to take seemingly ordinary characters and thrust them into unusual circumstances to see how things play out. Most of the stories in Cheating at Canasta contain moments of oddity that change the direction of the narrative. Each tale is an adventure. It’s like getting into a car and not knowing quite where you will end up…

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 has reviewed ‘The Old Boys’. I reviewed this same book in 2019. You can read my review here.

A Year With William Trevor

‘A Year with William Trevor’ is almost here!

As the end of the year fast approaches, this is just a quick reminder that it’s time to dust off your William Trevor books (or buy or borrow them) in preparation for “A Year with William Trevor”, which kicks off in January 2023.

Together with Cathy from 746 Books, we will be working our way through Trevor’s extensive backlist. Our proposed reading schedule is below. We’ll be posting our reviews in the first week of every month. I am aiming to publish my first one on the first Saturday of January.

Please feel free to join along. You don’t need to follow our schedule. Just read whatever Trevors you can lay your hands on and let us know using the hashtag #WilliamTrevor2023. I’m looking forward to seeing what everyone reads and having some good online chats about his work.

Here’s the proposed schedule:

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 

And here’s a gallery of all the books I am planning to read. I think these Penguin covers are just gorgeous:

For inspiration on what to read, please check out my original post announcing this year-long read-a-long.

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!