|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 Books — I 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.