The Children of Dynmouth by William Trevor

My fascination with the work of William Trevor continues apace with his 1976 novel, The Children of Dynmouth, the story of a malevolent teenager and the havoc he wreaks on the residents of a sleepy seaside town. It’s a brilliant book, one that veers between the darkly comic, the deeply tragic and the downright unnerving. I can definitely envisage it being one of my highlights of the year.

The novel revolves around Timothy Gedge, an ungainly fifteen-year-old boy who spends much of his time hanging around the town of Dynmouth, pestering people with his unfunny jokes and unwelcome small talk.

Timothy has grown up as a latch-key child, left to his own devices with very little in the way of family support. The boy’s mother and older sister are as thick as thieves, locked in their own private clique, largely at the exclusion of Timothy himself. Moreover, there is no male role model for Timothy to look up to, his father having upped and left the family home not long after he was born. Perhaps as a consequence of this, Timothy has turned out to be a very strange boy indeed – a point that Quentin Featherston, the local vicar, frequently considers.

He was a strange boy, always at a loose end. His mother was a good-looking woman with brassy hair who sold women’s clothes in a shop called Cha-Cha Fashions, his sister was six or seven years older than Timothy, good-looking also, employed as a petrol-pump attendant on the forecourt of the Smiling Service Filling Station: Quentin knew them both by sight. In adolescence, unfortunately, the boy was increasingly becoming a nuisance to people, endlessly friendly and smiling, keen for conversation. He was what Lavinia called a latch-key child, returning to the empty flat in Cornerways from the Comprehensive school, on his own in it all day during the school holidays. Being on his own seemed somehow to have become part of him. (p. 9)

At first, Timothy comes across as being a bit slow, a child with learning difficulties or behavioural issues. However, as the narrative unfolds, a more sinister facet of his personality soon begins to emerge. There is a malevolent side to the boy, a deliberately vicious streak that manifests itself in several ways. Timothy loiters around the town, watching people’s movements, peering through their windows, and listening in to private conversations – all with the intention of using any information gained to its full advantage. More specifically, Timothy knows why Commander Abigail likes to hang around the beach on the pretence of going for a swim; he knows that Miss Lavant loves Dr Greenslade from afar, setting an imaginary place for him at her dining-room table; and he knows that Mr Plant is having an affair with Mrs Gedge, one of several women the local publican appears to have on the go at once. Funerals are another source of fascination for Timothy, to the extent that he hangs around at the graveside, even when the deceased is unknown to him.

Things take a particularly unsettling turn when Timothy hatches a plan to enter the ‘Spot the Talent’ competition at the forthcoming Easter Fête. The performance will centre on a re-enactment of a macabre historical event involving the murder of three women in a bath – an incident Timothy learned of during a school trip to Madame Tussauds  He is convinced it will be a huge hit at the church-sponsored Fête, bringing the house down in the process. The boy’s fantasies even extend to the possibility that Hughie Green might be in the audience, scouting for contestants for Opportunity Knocks, a staple of the TV schedules back in the ‘70s.  

With a view to obtaining the props he needs for his act, Timothy proceeds to blackmail some of the residents he has had under observation. A pair of curtains from Mr Dass; a tin bath with the help of Mr Plant; and a dog-tooth suit from Commander Abigail, the latter being particularly vulnerable to potential exposure. Somewhat conveniently, Timothy is in the habit of popping over to the Abigails’ house every Wednesday evening, notionally under the pretence of doing a few odd jobs for the elderly couple; however, in reality, the boy is there for a free dinner and a chance to pilfer some money. It is during one of these evenings that a drunken Timothy begins to turn the screws on the Commander, while poor Mrs Abigail is left to watch the proceedings unfold with a mixture of distress and bewilderment.

‘You’ve no right to spy on people,’ the Commander began to say. ‘You’ve no right to go poking –’

‘I’ve witnessed you down on the beach, sir. Running about in your bathing togs. I’ve witnessed you up to your tricks, Commander, when she’s out on her Meals on Wheels.’

He smiled at her, but she didn’t want to look at him. ‘I wouldn’t ever tell a soul,’ he said. ‘I wouldn’t, Commander.’

She waited, her eyes fixed on the flowered tea-pot, frowning at it. Whatever he was referring to, she didn’t want to hear about it. She wanted him to stop speaking. She felt herself infected by her husband’s panic, not knowing why she felt like that. They would keep the secret, the boy said. The secret would be safe. (p. 64)

The way that Timothy preys on the more vulnerable residents of Dynmouth is particularly cruel. In an attempt to procure a wedding dress for his act, Timothy targets two twelve-year-olds, Stephen and Kate, who are now half-brother and sister following a marriage between Stephen’s widowed father and Kate’s divorced mother. A gap of three years can seem vast at this age, and Timothy – a boy on the cusp of adulthood – uses this differential to his full advantage. He maliciously embellishes the events surrounding the death of Stephen’s mother, sowing the seeds of doubt in the youngsters’ minds. It’s a terribly cruel trick, skilfully played.

What Trevor does so well here is to expose the darkness that lurks beneath the veneer of respectable society – perhaps most notably, the men who interfere with young boys under the pretence of an innocent game. There is much sadness to be uncovered too – the desperate loneliness of Miss Lavant’s solitary life; the abandonment of the Dasses by the son they indulged in his youth; and the real reason for the emotional distance that characterises the Abigails’ marriage. There are harsh, uncomfortable truths lying dormant here; things the Dynmouth residents would prefer not to know about or tackle.

The rhythms and preoccupations of small-town life are beautifully captured too, from the desolate views of the windswept promenade, to the sleepy matinees at the down-at-heel cinema, to the much-anticipated return of Ring’s Amusements for the summer season. Dynmouth is the type of place where everyone knows everyone else’s business, complete with all the petty squabbles this environment can breed. The following passage could have come straight out of a Barbara Pym novel, such is its wonderful combination of dry comedy and keen insight.

‘I think I’m going to try and cut the grass,’ Quentin Featherston said as he and Lavinia washed up the dishes after the Mothers’ Union tea-party, which had been even more trying than usual. When Miss Poraway had mentioned a Tupperware party Mrs Stead-Carter had gone much further than she’d ever gone before. She’d pointed out that it was stupid to talk about Tupperware parties as a means of raising funds since funds raised at Tupperware parties naturally went to the manufacturers of Tupperware. Miss Poraway said there were other parties of a similar nature, at which suede jackets and coats were modelled, and sometimes underclothes. In greater exasperation Mrs Stead-Carter said she’d never heard anything as silly in her life: the Mothers’ Union in Dynmouth had neither Tupperware nor suede clothes nor underclothes at its disposal, Miss Poraway’s whole line of conversation was a waste of time. (p. 101)

In the end though, the reader is left wondering about Timothy Gedge (a boy who could be a younger incarnation of Muriel Spark’s Dougal Douglas). Is Timothy as much of a victim of circumstance as he is a perpetrator of evil? How much of his character has been shaped by nature vs nurture? Is there the possibility of redemption in his future? These are just some of the questions for the reader to ponder…

The Children of Dynmouth is published by Penguin Books: personal copy.

29 thoughts on “The Children of Dynmouth by William Trevor

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Quite a few of his early novels feature dark elements – The Boarding-House, for instance. There’s a devilish feel to some of the humour, as if he’s putting these characters through the mill. I’ll be interested to see what you think…

  1. inthemistandrain

    I’ve read it recently and enjoyed it immensely as I do all of his work. Oh dear, I think I’m going to have to buy The Boarding House now……
    Very interested to read your thoughts on The Ballad of Peckham Rye, it’s on my pile and has now shot to the top of the ever changing order of tbr. It’s the new edition with an introduction by Ronald Frame (who, I confess, I’ve just had to look up).
    Thank you for your, as ever, great review and inspiration to pick up another Muriel Spark. Plus make another purchase at my local bookshop (which can’t ever be a bad thing!).

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha! You’re very welcome. I’m so glad to hear that you’ve been enjoying these reviews – thank you for making the time to comment about that.

      There’s definitely a touch of Timothy Gedge in Dougal Douglas, the protagonist in Spark’s Peckham Rye. Or maybe it’s the other way around as the Spark came first (initially published in 1960)? I wonder if Trevor had ever read the book? It wouldn’t surprise me if he had as the deliberately malevolent streak is common to both characters…

  2. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Wonderful review, Jacqui, and how interesting! As I started to read your post I was reminded of Spark and then you mentioned her at the end. This sounds like a very dark and excellent read, puncturing the veneer of small-town respectability. Nature vs nurture is something I’m still not sure about; I don’t think there *is* a definitive answer, though nurture definitely has a lot to do with some people’s behaviour…

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Puncturing the veneer of small-town respectability – that’s it exactly. At first sight, these residents seem to be ordinary or reputable members of the community, but in reality virtually everyone has a somewhat shameful or embarrassing secret to hide. It makes for a poignant read, shot through with a wicked sense of humour. Definitely my favourite Trevor so far!

  3. heavenali

    I haven’t read as much William Trevor as you, but I know how good he is at character and place. This is not a novel I had heard of before but it sounds brilliant. I am rather intruiged by that darker element.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s quite Sparkian in places, almost reminiscent of The Ballad of Peckham Rye at times. While I know that’s not one of your favourites, I’d still be very interested to hear how you think the Trevor compares, should you ever decide to read it!

  4. Jonathan

    I loved this book when I read it a few years ago. I seemed to remember the ending was hopeful in that Gedge seemed to realise his behaviour wasn’t acceptable.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s brilliant, isn’t it? So dark and twisted. And I love the way Timothy persists in calling the vicar Mr Feather, even though he knows it’s a clear provocation. The dialogue is excellent on that front, particularly the way it captures Timothy’s deliberate malevolence juxtaposed with the false air of naivety. As for the ending – yes, there’s a note of redemption to it, for sure. Mind you, I’m not entirely sure how long that change of heart will last…

  5. Jane

    Another new author for me and one I like the sound of, especially since it would be fun to be the same age as the protagonist for once!

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha! I would have been the same age as Kate and Stephen in 1976, so I can imagine how frightening someone like Timothy Gedge must have seemed to them back then. The period detail really resonated too, especially with Trevor’s descriptions of life in the town of Dynmouth. I couldn’t help but be reminded of childhood holidays in Bognor Regis…

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Marvellous! I think you’d appreciate this one, Cathy. It’s interesting to note how different it feels to some of Trevor’s later work, novels like Love and Summer and the short stories in After Rain. They’re gentler in tone than Dynmouth – more compassionate or humane.

  6. buriedinprint

    I tend to think more of melancholy than darkness when I think of Trevor, but I realize that the darkness must be more prominent than I’ve yet discovered and is likely why he is so often compared to Alice Munro, with her southern-Ontario Gothic flavour. Have not yet dismissed the idea of reading straight through. Is that what you’re aiming for? Or are you simply dabbling as you pick up copies of this and that?

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’ve been darting around a bit in my reading of Trevor, partly a function of the books that I’d acquired over the past two or three years. That said, I have ended up reading quite a few of his early novels: The Old Boys, The Boarding-House and The Love Departments, all of which contained distinct flashes of darkness. There’s a devilish streak of black humour running through these novels, a tone that feels somewhat different to the melancholic sadness of some of his later work (books like Love and Summer, for instance). I’m not quite sure if that was a conscious change of his part or a natural progression/evolution in style, but it’ll be interesting to see if that becomes any clearer over time.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha! I knew you would pick up on that. Seriously though, I do think there’s a touch of Dougal Douglas about young Timothy Gedge. Both of these individuals are meddlers, stirring up trouble in their immediate communities. I would love for you to read this at some point, just to see what you think of the comparison between the two!

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