Lately I’ve been reading quite a bit of William Trevor – the esteemed Irish writer, widely considered to be a master of the short story form. (I’ve previously written about some of his novels here.) First published in 1996, After Rain comprises twelve beautifully-crafted stories, not a dud amongst them. Like much of Trevor’s work, they centre on ordinary people – perhaps more specifically, the day-to-day developments that shape their lives in the most poignant of ways.
As with other collections I’ve reviewed, I’m not planning to cover every piece; instead, my aim is to give you a flavour of the highlights and what to expect from the book as a whole.
The collection opens with The Piano Tuner’s Wives, a memorable story in which we gain an insight into an elderly man’s second marriage, a relationship tainted by resentment and jealousy. The man in question is Owen, a blind piano tuner, whose first wife, Violet, used to act as his eyes, describing the immediate world in all its glory. Two years after Violet’s death, Owen marries Belle – a woman he first knew many years ago before his previous marriage. In her determination to replace Violet in Owen’s mind, Belle describes people and places in ways that deliberately undermine the visions previously created by her predecessor, such is the sense of insecurity she feels in the marriage.
But even with the dog and the television, with additions and disposals in the house, with being so sincerely assured that she was loved, with been told she was good, nothing changed for Belle. The woman who for so long had taken her husband’s arm, who had a guided him into rooms of houses where he coaxed pianos back to life, still claimed existence. Not as a tiresome ghost, some unforgiving spectre uncertainly there, but as if some part of her had been left in the man she’d loved. (p. 12)
The real tragedy of this story is the fact that Owen knows precisely what Belle is up to; and yet he accepts her actions, however much it might pain him to do so.
Deception also plays a role in A Friendship, a story in which a bored, previously faithful wife, Francesca, embarks on an affair with an attractive man, aided by her footloose friend, Margy. When Francesca’s priggish husband, Philip, discovers the affair through a chance remark made at a party, he feels betrayed on two fronts – not only by his wife but by Margy too, particularly as the lovers have been meeting in Margy’s flat. As a consequence, Philip asks Francesca to end her lifelong friendship with Margy, something he knows will be a wrench for her. While forgiveness might be possible within the marriage, the same sentiment cannot be extended to the friendship – something that Margy is acutely aware of when she reflects on the change in their situation.
Every time she [Margy] played with his children he would remember the role she had played that summer: she could hear him saying it, and Francesca’s silence. Every present she brought to the house would seem to him to be a traitor’s bribe. The summer would always be there, embalmed in the friendship that had made the deception possible – the key to the flat, the seaside house, the secret kept and then discovered. What the marriage sought to forget the friendship never would because the summer had become another part of it. (p. 33)
Trevor also writes brilliantly about the sense of duty and stigma that guides the lives of so many of his protagonists. In Widows, Catherine faces a dilemma when she is approached by a feckless trader following the death of her husband, Matthew – an upstanding member of the community. Mr Leary – a painter and decorator – had been employed to paint the outside of the couple’s house just a few months before Matthew’s death. Now that Matthew is no longer alive to represent himself, Mr Leary calls at the home – not just to pay his respects, but to state that the bill for the paint job was never paid. Catherine believes this to be a lie, particularly as she withdrew the money for the payment herself. However, no receipt or proof of payment can be found, prompting Leary to resubmit the bill. Catherine’s sister, Alicia (also widowed), knows that Catherine is being taken for a fool, and yet there is little she can do to change her sister’s mind.
A disappointment rose in Alicia, bewildering and muddled. The death of her own husband had brought an end, and her expectation had been that widowhood for her sister would be the same. Her expectation had been that in their shared state they would be as once they were, now that marriage was over, packed away with their similar mourning clothes. Yet almost palpable in the kitchen was Catherine’s resolve that what still remained for her should not be damaged by a fuss of protest over a confidence trick. The Guards investigating clothes sold at a jumble sale, strangers asked if a house-painter’s wife had bought this garment or that, private intimacies made public: Catherine was paying money in case, somehow, the memory of her husband should be accidentally tarnished. (pp. 112–113)
Alicia knows the concerns over Matthew’s reputation will grind Catherine down, almost certainly giving rise to new worries and eccentricities. Much to her annoyance, she knows the situation must play out to its natural conclusion. Like many other pieces in this collection, this is a very affecting story, beautifully observed.
The desire to avoid any scandal or shame is also present in The Potato Dealer, one of my favourite stories in the collection. In terms of setting, atmosphere, style and tone, it feels very similar to Trevor’s 2009 novel, Love and Summer, a book I adored. In The Potato Dealer, a young girl, Ellie, falls pregnant following a summer romance, forcing her relatives to arrange a marriage of convenience, thereby avoiding the shame of an illegitimate child. The proposed husband is Mulreavy, a local potato dealer known to the family.
The narrative explores various aspects of the situation: the complex nature of the dynamics within Ellie’s family, Ellie’s relationship with Mulreavy whom she does not love, and Mulreavy’s feelings towards Ellie and her daughter. This is a subtle, nuanced story, one that delves into various aspects of human nature from duty and honour to pride and self-esteem. Once again, it’s perfectly judged.
The longest story in the collection is also the most shocking. Set in a close-knit community in Northern Ireland, Lost Ground tells of a young Protestant boy, Milton, who receives visitations from a woman claiming to be a Catholic saint. When Milton decides to preach about his experiences in the towns of Armagh, his Protestant family are horrified, intervening quite radically as the situation escalates. This is a powerful, heartbreaking story, shot through with the undeniable threat of tension that exists between opinionated groups of different faiths.
In summary, After Rain is a superb collection of stories, up there with Eleven Kinds of Loneliness (by Richard Yates) as one of my all-time favourites. There are definite similarities too with Maeve Brennan’s The Springs of Affection – particularly in terms of setting, tone and insight into character.
Once again, Trevor proves himself to be an incredibly astute chronicler of human nature. These are stories of bittersweet regrets and missed opportunities, of the acceptance of life’s disappointments and duties, of crumbled hopes and dashed dreams. Like much of the best short fiction, these pieces leave enough space for the reader to bring their own reflections to bear on the narratives, opening up the possibilities beyond the words on the page. In many instances, what is omitted or left unsaid is just as important as what is explicitly expressed.
All in all, this is very highly recommended indeed, especially to lovers of character-driven fiction.
After Rain is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.
The stories sound very good. The situations and characters as you describe them make me want to read this. I need to read more short stories.
If you want to read more short stories, then you really need to try William Trevor. He’s right up there with the very best.
He’s a favourite of mine
Lovely quotes, Jacqui. Your mention of duty and stigma reminded me of my favourite Trevor, The Story of Lucy Gault, one of the saddest books I’ve ever read.
I recall you recommending Lucy Gault to me before. It does sound very good, although possibly best kept for another time when the outside world feels a bit more approachable and settled. :)
Short stories are such a skill and to be able to write a consistently good collection is rare. I really must read Trevor’s short stories, I’ve only read a couple of his novels.
Yes, I agree. I suspect they might be harder to write than novels as there’s really nowhere for the writer to hide over the short form. As you say, it’s rare to find a collection of this quality where every individual story feels like a gem. Usually I find myself connecting with some pieces more than others, but in this instance they all resonate very strongly. No wonder Trevor is considered to be such a master of the form.
This collection is so fantastic and I too loved The Potato Dealer and Widows in particular. He is such a master of the short story.
A couple of weeks ago, when I posted a picture of this book on Twitter, somebody replied to say that it’s probably Trevor’s best collection. Now I’m keen to read some of the others to see how they match up! Which of his other collections have you read, Cathy? I’d be interested to know.
I’ve read A Bit on the Side which is also great but I really thought this was masterful.
I’ll take a look at that – thanks. I also quite fancy Cheating at Canasta, purely because the title sounds so appealing!
Lovely post, Jacqui. I’ve only ever read one of his short stories, and it was very striking. He’s obviously another I need to explore…!
I think he’s in a similar space to someone like Elizabeth Taylor. The kind of writer who watches and observes people in their most private of moments. He seems to put more emphasis on showing than telling, if that makes sense – thereby leaving enough space for the reader’s interpretation.
These stories sound absolutely lovely, Trevor is so good at presenting characters and their situations faithfully and realistically. That you reference Love and Summer convinces me even more as I thought that was a wonderful novel.
I think you’d love this collection. As writer, he seems to find the universal in the small and personal, conveying a character’s emotions in the subtlest of ways. The Potato Dealer feels as if it could have been a rehearsal for certain elements of Love and Summer. I’d love to hear your thoughts on it if you ever decide to pick up a copy.
I do love how you have such a wonderful ability to sniff out the gems.
Having enjoyed quite a few of the novels, I wanted to try some of Trevor’s stories. This might not be as well known as some of his other collections, but something about the title really appealed to me. That sense of freshness you get in the atmosphere after a shower when the air feels pure and clean…
I haven’t read many books by William Trevor; the last was The Love Department. I get a little put off by his misanthropy, often described as ‘gleeful’ but still quite dark. I have just re-read your review of The Old Boys which I haven’t got around to yet and that sounds extremely amusing. I think though his 1993 autobiographical essays Excursions in the Real World will be my kind of thing. Apparently he had a very ‘chilly’ home life as a young boy.
I know what you mean about the darkness. Those early novels are wickedly funny at times, but there’s a savagery to some of the humour, a cruel streak that can make it feel somewhat vicious. Funnily enough, The Love Department was probably my least favourite of the three early novels I’ve read to date. The Old Boys is great, but there’s still a dark undercurrent running through it. Also, if you dislike reading about any instances of cruelty to animals, then it might be one to avoid – unfortunately someone’s pet comes to rather an unfortunate end!
Oh dear. I am quite squeamish about that, although it is easier to locate than the autobiographical essays.
It is quite a savage element of the novel, I have to admit. on the other hand, those autobiographical essays sound interesting. I shall have to look them up!
Thank you Jacqui, I haven’t come across William Trevor and I’m really enjoying Irish writing at the moment so I’ll certainly put this on the TBR!
You’re very welcome. He’s wonderful, so skilled at capturing us in our most private of moments. I do hope you take to him.
I’ve only read a novella and occasional stories by William Trevor, in TNY and anthologies, but he’s someone I’ve thought of making a concerted project of (even if only his stories, as with my Munro and Gallant expeditions). His writing reminds me of both of these writers, and also Edna O’Brien, for focusing on solitary figures, mis-steps in marriages and romances, with a hint of (sometimes more than a hint) melancholy while softly chuckling at the strange synchronicities and ironies of human behaviour. His volume of Collected Stories is just massive, so I think it would be nicest to read collection by collection as you’ve done. I giggled at your saying (above) that you’d like to read Cheating at Canasta because you like the title!
I think he would be a great subject for one of your short story projects! And from what I’ve seen of your Gallant reviews, there does seem to be a certain similarity between these two writers. Missteps in marriages and romances is an excellent way of putting it. That’s also very much in evidence in Maeve Brennan’s story collection, The Springs of Affection, which immediately came to mind as I was reading your posts on Gallant’s Carette stories.
I agree, the Collected edition of Trevor’s stories looks humongous, too unwieldy to read comfortably and overwhelming in terms of length. The individual collections are the way to go, I think. Much more manageable in every sense.
That’s what I’ve been considering. He would be such an excellent fit, theme-wise at least (but also, likely, in other ways). But I have three other possibilities in mind, too, and I have all the necessary books for them, so I have a feeling that I will have to wait on Trevor’s stories (hopefully not too long, though–I might have to quicken the pace on my projects).
Sounds as if you’ve got some interesting plans lined up. :)
I share your enthusiasm, Jacqui, for After Rain and included it in my favorite books of 2018. I’ve been reading a lot of shorter fiction lately and recently finished The Persephone Book of Short Stories. You’ve inspired me to read Cheating at Canasta next.
Wonderful! I’d love to here how you get on with Cheating at Canasta. Just the title alone makes me want to read it. Oh, and thanks for the tip about the Persephone collection – that does sound very good indeed. :)
Pingback: What I Read, May 2020 | Eiger, Mönch & Jungfrau
Pingback: My books of the year, 2020 – part 3, short stories | JacquiWine's Journal