Tag Archives: #ReadingIreland

Foster by Claire Keegan

When I look back over the last three months, Claire Keegan’s beautiful novella Small Things Like These stands out as one of my favourite recent reads. Set in a small town in County Wexford in the run-up to Christmas 1985, the book tells the story of Bill Furlong, a thoroughly decent, hardworking man who stays true to his personal values when he sees worrying signs of abuse at the local convent. It’s a deeply affecting story about standing up to the Catholic Church and doing right by those around you, even if it puts your family’s security at risk.

Clocking in at under 100 pages, Foster is an earlier novella in a similar style, drawing on themes of family, kindness and compassion from a child’s point of view. It’s a gorgeous book, just as exquisitely written as Small Things Like These, confirming Keegan as one of my favourite Irish writers alongside the wonderful Maeve Brennan.

As Foster opens, a young girl from Clonegal, County Carlow is being driven to County Wexford by her father, Dan. There she will stay with relatives, an aunt and uncle she doesn’t know, with no mention of a return date or the nature of the arrangement. The girl’s mother, Mary, is expecting a baby, and with a large family to support, the couple have chosen to take the girl to Wexford to ease the burden at home.

Almost immediately the girl detects some differences in her new environment with John and Edna Kinsella. Like the girl’s parents, the Kinsellas are country folk, living and working on a farm – and yet the atmosphere feels more relaxed here than at home, less rushed with more space to think and breathe.

With my mother it is all work: us, the butter-making, the dinners, the washing up and getting up and getting ready for Mass and school, weaning calves, and hiring men to plough and harrow the fields, stretching the money and setting the alarm. But this is a different type of house. Here there is room, and time to think. There may even be money to spare. (p. 12)

The story is narrated by the young girl herself (whose name we never learn), a viewpoint that gives the novella a beautiful sense of intimacy, perfectly capturing the uncertainty of not knowing how the future will pan out.

And so the days pass. I keep waiting for something to happen, for the ease I feel to end – to wake in a wet bed, to make some blunder, some big gaffe, to break something – but each day follows on much like the one before. (p. 37)

With no children of their own at home, the Kinsellas treat the girl with love and compassion, demonstrating their values through simple acts of kindness. As John works the land, preparing the crops for harvest, the girl helps Edna around the house, lighter work than she has been used to at home. Here she learns how to prepare fruit from the garden for jam and tarts, the simple rhythms of domestic life. There’s time for some fun too, the occasional trip to town to buy clothes and sweets – when John gives the girl a pound note to spend, her eyes light up. We also learn a little more about the Kinsellas themselves, how past sorrows have almost certainly shaped their affection for the girl, whom they treat as one of their own.

As the summer draws to a close, the sense of uncertainty about the future heightens, sharpening a little the atmosphere in the house. I won’t reveal anything more about how the story plays out, other than to say that Keegan really lands the ending – it’s an unforgettable scene.

Keegan writes beautifully about the gentle rhythms of country life. There is a purity and simplicity to her prose, a luminosity that builds through the book.

All through the walk, the wind blows hard and soft and hard again through the tall, flowering hedges, the high trees. In the fields, the combines are out cutting the wheat, the barley and oats, saving the corn, leaving behind long rows of straw. We meet men on tractors, going in different directions, pulling balers to the fields, and trailers full of grain to the co-op. Birds swoop down, brazen, eating the fallen seed off the middle of the road. (p. 49)

Her style is uncluttered and spare – every phrase has just the right weight and meaning, not a word out of place. She also leaves plenty of space in the story, allowing the reader to make their own connections between little hints and observations to fill in the gaps.

Occasional references to external events seem to locate the story in the late ‘70s/early ‘80s, and yet there is a timeless quality to it, reflecting the Ireland of old. Keegan also nails the atmosphere of a small, close-knit community to perfection, the sort of place where everyone knows everyone else’s business and gossip is rife. In this scene, a nosy acquaintance of Edna’s has just come back from a funeral with much to report.

She takes off her cardigan and sits down and starts talking about the wake: who was there, the type of sandwiches that were made, the queen cakes, the corpse who was lying up crooked in the coffin and hadn’t even been shaved properly, how they had plastic rosary beads for him, the poor fucker. (pp. 57–58)

In summary then, Foster is a sublime novella, a masterclass in the ‘less-is-more’ school of writing – a poignant story, beautifully told. Another very strong contender for my annual reading highlights.

Foster is published by Faber & Faber; personal copy.

The House in Paris by Elizabeth Bowen  

First published in 1935, The House in Paris is probably one of Elizabeth Bowen’s most accomplished novels. It’s certainly the most atmospheric of the four I’ve read to date, an elegantly constructed story of deceptions, infidelity and identity, infused with a sense of secrecy that feels apparent from the start.

The novel is divided into three sections, the first and third of which (both titled ‘The Present’) take place on the same day – a fateful day in the lives of Bowen’s four main characters, as the narrative ultimately reveals. As the book opens, eleven-year-old Henrietta has just arrived in Paris, where she will spend the day with the Fishers before continuing her journey to Menton, where her grandmother is spending the winter. In short, the Fishers’ is a stopover point for Henrietta between trains – a visit arranged by the girl’s grandmother, Mrs Arbuthnot, and her friend, Miss Naomi Fisher.

Also waiting at the Fishers’ house in Paris in Leopold, a nine-year-old boy who is due to meet his mother, Karen, for the first time since his birth – a reunion that coincides with Henrietta’s visit purely by chance, much to Naomi’s concern. The circumstances surrounding Leopold’s parentage are clearly something of a mystery, with Bowen dropping clues here and there for the reader to piece together. For instance, when Henrietta arrives at the Fishers’ house, she is introduced to Naomi’s mother, Mme Fisher, a manipulative elderly lady in the dying days of her life. While Naomi is keen for Leopold to be treated sensitively, Mme Fisher is much less discreet, readily disclosing her daughter’s link to the boy’s father as she talks to Henrietta.

‘Oh,’ Henrietta said, ‘did you know his father too?’

‘Quite well,’ said Mme Fisher. ‘He broke Naomi’s heart.’

She mentioned this impatiently, as though it had been some annoying domestic mishap. Henrietta, glancing across the bed, saw Miss Fisher’s eyelids glued down with pain. Then, with the air of having known all along this would come, the helpless daughter rolled up her knitting quickly, as though to terminate something, perhaps the pretence of safety, jabbing her needles through it with violent calm. (p. 43)

Leopold, too, learns something of the mystery surrounding his birth during his time at the Paris house. While Henrietta is upstairs with Miss Fisher and her bedridden mother, Leopold finds some letters in Naomi’s handbag – one from his guardians, the Grant Moodys, outlining various sensitivities to Naomi, and another from Mrs Arbuthnot on the details of Henrietta’s trip. However, a third letter – a note from Leopold’s mother to Naomi – is missing, remaining unavailable to the reader and Leopold himself. Nevertheless, there are worrying references to his parents’ temperaments – ‘instability on the father’s side’ and a ‘lack of control on the mother’s’ – in the first letter that Leopold discovers. 

Slowly but surely, Bowen ratchets up the sense of tension as the two children circle one another in the Paris house. It’s a dark, claustrophobic place, heightened by the oppressive air in Mme Fisher’s sick room and the poisonous events of the past.

Round the curtained bedhead, Pompeian red walls drank objects into their shadow: picture-frames, armies of bottles, boxes, an ornate clock showed without glinting, as though not quite painted out by some dark transparent wash. Henrietta had never been in a room so full and still. (p. 36)

Bowen excels at portraying these children, skilfully capturing their growing awareness of the adult world while a fuller picture of its mysteries remains tantalisingly out of reach.

In the novel’s second section (‘The Past’), Bowen takes us back ten years to a time when Naomi was engaged to Max Ebhart, a Jewish banker of French-English heritage. Central to this section is Naomi’s friend, Karen Michaelis – herself engaged to Ray Forrestier, a respectable man from the ‘right’ background and social class – and it is by focusing on Karen’s story that we learn the origins of Leopold’s birth.

One of the things Bowen does so well here is to show us how the past shapes the present, how former indiscretions and secrets can bleed into the here and now in the most painful of ways. Consequently, there is an air of damage or trauma surrounding Leopold, a lack of motherly love and sense of identity that have left their marks on his character.

Bowen’s prose is beautiful, if a little tricky to get to grips with from time to time. Nevertheless, there is some lovely descriptive writing here, from the glimpses of Paris in the morning light to the sun-drenched cul-de-sacs of Boulogne during a secret assignation.

Today, the salt sunshine bought every shape nearer, as though distance has been parched out. Doorways, cobbles, arches and stone steps looked sentient and porous in the glare. Buildings basked like cats in the kind heat, having been gripped by cold mists, having ached in unkind nights, been buffeted in the winter. Hot wind tugged now and then at the flags down on the Casino, stretching the flags, then letting them drop again. Flashing, a window was thrown open uphill. What you saw, you felt. (p. 139)

The House in Paris is an elegantly constructed novel in which the past is firmly intertwined with the present – a structure that Tessa Hadley mirrors in her 2015 novel, The Past, with a clear nod to Bowen’s approach.

The House in Paris is published by Vintage Books; personal copy.

Other People’s Worlds by William Trevor

As a writer, William Trevor has an innate ability to convey the tragedies of our lives, how individuals can be worn down by their fates and circumstances. It’s a quality that’s very much in evidence here, in the author’s 1980 novel, Other People’s Worlds, a tale of deception, collateral damage and a questioning of faith. But, if anything, the story is even darker than Trevor’s other early to mid-period work, more malevolent perhaps than The Children of Dynmouth, with which it shares a central theme – how a sinister figure can sweep into people’s lives, leaving wreckage in their wake.

The man in question is Francis Tyte, a thirty-something bit-part actor whose main claim to fame is a series of tobacco commercials on the TV. As the novel opens, Francis is preparing to marry Julia Ferndale, a forty-seven-year-old woman who lives wither her widowed mother, Mrs Anstey, in Swan House, their Gloucestershire home. Mrs Anstey has some nagging doubts about Francis, which she tries to voice to her grown-up grandchildren, Henrietta and Katherine, but to little avail. While Julia’s daughters agree that their mother should make a will, they have no great concerns about Francis himself. After all, Julia seems happy with him, contently planning their honeymoon in Florence, for which she alone will pay.

Francis, however, is not as charming or innocent as he might appear at first sight, as Trevor quickly reveals to the reader (but not to Julia herself). Over the years, Francis has latched onto a series of people (often women), inveigling his way into their worlds, taking advantage of their generosity – and in some instances, their vulnerabilities. It’s a well-worn routine, complete with a tragic childhood to illicit the victims’ sympathies, perfected over time, from one family to another.

After the tragedy of his parents’ death when he was eleven he’d spent the remainder of his childhood in Suffolk, with a faded old aunt who had died herself a few years ago. None of that was true. As a child he had developed the fantasy of the train crash; his parents were still alive, the aunt and her cottage figments of his imagination. But in the drawing-room of Swan House he recalled the railway tragedy with suitable regret, and was rewarded with sympathy and another cup of tea. (p. 28)

Once Francis has gained what he wants from his benefactors – or has been rumbled – he disappears, leaving them feeling foolish and violated in his wake. In most instances, money is his main object, alongside a place to stay; but as the narrative unfolds, the is a sense of something deeper at play – a desire or need to disrupt, perhaps. In many respects, Julia is the perfect target for Francis – kind, compassionate, and too trusting by half. Prone to collecting ‘lame ducks’, as Mrs Anstey tends to think of it. 

As preparations for the wedding get underway, Francis’s past begins to close in on him. We meet Doris, a single mother with a drink problem, barely holding down her job in the shoe department of a local store. While twelve-year-old Joy (Francis and Doris’s daughter) skips school, Doris cuts a particularly tragic figure, hiding bottles of vodka behind the bread bin to feed her escalating addiction. She too is the victim of Francis’s lies, knowing nothing about his engagement to Julia and the forthcoming wedding. As far as Doris is concerned, Francis is still married to his first wife, a dressmaker in Folkestone who has been at death’s door for several years.

Surely, it’s only a matter of time. Once the dressmaker has finally passed away, things will be different. Francis will be free to live with Doris and Joy on a permanent basis – just like a proper family, or so Doris believes. But her colleagues at the store are not quite as convinced…

He’d got even thinner, his face especially, not that it didn’t suit him. Lean bacon’s best, as Irene in Handbags always said. All the girls on the floor knew what he looked like of course because of being on the television, especially since he’d become the Man with the Pipe and there were more close-ups of his features. ‘Dishy,’ young Maeve who brought the tea to the floor supervisor’s office had said only three weeks ago. But some of the other girls, aware of how long Doris had been waiting for him, sometimes pursed their lips. (p. 64)

Others too get caught up in the web of lies, from Susanna Music, a young actress who comes into contact with Francis while working on a TV drama, to Francis’s elderly parents, Mr and Mrs Tyte – alive and relatively well in a care home in Hampton Wick. (Interestingly, the drama Francis and Susanna are working on concerns Constance Kent, whose story has some resonances with Other People’s Worlds.)

Once the truth about Francis comes out (which feels inevitable to the reader from the start), Julia, a practising Catholic, begins to seriously question her faith, doubting the existence of God, given the trauma she is experiencing. It’s an interesting development, adding another layer to Trevor’s richly imagined story.

Francis Tyte is yet another of William Trevor’s sinister creations, a truly dangerous man who cares little for his victims, weaving fantasies for himself as he destroys those around him. As the story develops, we learn more about his early years, the interactions between Francis and a broader at the Tyte family home. Not that any of this is an excuse for Francis’s unscrupulous behaviour, but it does shed some light on how the rot began to set in.

Alongside the darkness and undeniable tragedy, there are humorous moments too. Mrs Spanners, Julia’s sixty-year-old charwoman, provides some welcome light relief with her interest in local gossip and forthright pronouncements. (Mrs Anstey, as it happens, is not a fan of Mrs Spanners and her ways of doing things, viewing her as an interference when Julia is away.) Once again, Trevor demonstrates his sharp eye for detail, the little touches that bring a character to life.

[Mrs Spanners:] ‘Fancy the garbage out again! Never think of no one but theirselves.’

She wore an overall with prancing shepherdesses on it, and was heavily scented with Love-in-a-Mist. Her face had already been made up, fingernails shaped and painted. Her tangerine hair was fresh from its curlers.

‘Another thing,’ she said. ‘Pig products is up. Immediate from midnight.’

With that she departed. (pp. 123–124)

Doris is a remarkably complex character (more deranged and twisted than Francis himself), foisting herself on Julia, Mrs Anstey and others as the truth is revealed.

All in all, this is a fateful tale – a story of shattered lives damaged by a fantasist/con man with little appreciation of his capacity to destroy. Nevertheless, there are glimmers of hope at the end amid the damage and destruction.

Definitely recommended for lovers of dark, character-driven fiction with flawed, unlikeable individuals. Fans of Muriel Spark’s The Ballad of Peckham Rye may well be interested in this one, especially given the resonances with Dougal Douglas and his disruptive impact on the community.

Other People’s Worlds is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.

Reading Ireland – My Favourite Books by Irish Women Writers

As some of you may know, March is Reading Ireland Month (#ReadingIreland22), co-hosted by Cathy at the 746Books blog and Niall/Raging Fluff. It’s a month-long celebration of Irish books and culture from both sides of the border – you can find out more about it here.

Over the past few years, I’ve reviewed quite a few books by Irish writers; and given that 8th March is International Women’s Day, I thought I would share some of my favourites by women. (Hopefully these might give you some ideas on what to read if you’re thinking of participating.)

The Hotel by Elizabeth Bowen (1927)

Bowen’s striking debut novel is a story of unsuitable attachments – more specifically, the subtle power dynamics at play among the members of a very privileged set, cast against the backdrop of the Italian Riviera. In many respects, the novel revolves around Sydney Warren, a somewhat remote yet spirited young woman in her early twenties, and the individuals she meets during her break. In some instances, the characters are gravitating towards one another for convenience and perhaps a vague kind of protection or social acceptability, while in others, there are more underhand motives at play.

It all feels incredibly accomplished for a debut, full of little observations on human nature and the social codes that dictate people’s behaviour (there are some wonderful details on hotel etiquette here). If you like Edith Wharton’s ‘society’ novels, The Hotel could well be for you.

The Springs of Affection by Maeve Brennan (from the early 1950s to the early ‘70s)

A stunning collection of stories, all set in the same modest terraced house in the Ranelagh suburb of Dublin in the 20th century. The collection opens with a series of seven short autobiographical pieces that offer brief glimpses of Brennan’s childhood, a broadly happy time despite the political turbulence of the early 1920s. Then we move on to a sequence of stories featuring Rose and Hubert Derdon, a middle-aged couple whose marriage is characterised by an intense emotional distance. Here we see two desperately unhappy individuals locked in a kind of stasis, unable or incapable of reaching out to one another and accepting their respective flaws. Lastly, the third and final section explores another couple with difficulties in their marriage, Martin and Delia Bagot. In contrast to the previous pieces, there is a little more hope here as the Bagots’ relationship is punctuated by occasional moments of brightness.

What sets this collection apart from many others is the cumulative sense of disconnection conveyed through the stories, the layers of insight and meaning that gradually reveal themselves with each additional piece.

Tea at Four O’Clock by Janet McNeill (1956)

A brilliant but desperately sad story of familial obligations, ulterior motives and long-held guilt, set within the middle-class Protestant community of Belfast in the 1950s. The novel’s protagonist is Laura Percival – a rather timid spinster in her forties – who we first meet on the afternoon of a family funeral. The deceased is Laura’s elder sister, Mildred, a woman whose presence still looms large over Marathon (the Percivals’ residence), despite her recent death. This is a novel that delves into the past as developments force Laura to confront a period of her life she has long since buried – more specifically, a series of circumstances that led her to stay at Marathon when the possibility of freedom was so tantalisingly within reach.

A powerful, character-driven novel that focuses on the psychology and underlying motives of different individuals tied together by familial or social bonds, however tenuous. Fans of Anita Brookner, Elizabeth Taylor and Elizabeth Bowen would likely appreciate this.

Academy Street by Mary Costello (2014)

This gorgeous, deeply-affecting novel focuses on the life of Tess Lohan, a girl born and raised on a farm in rural Ireland. The novel opens in the mid-1940s with the death of Tess’ mother – a loss that sets the tone for the decades which follow. Academy Street is a poignant book, the deeply-moving story of a quiet life that plays out firstly in 1950s Ireland and then in 1960s New York. The overall tone is achingly melancholy, but there are moments of intense beauty amidst the solitude and heartache.

One of the most impressive things about this novel is the intensity of feeling Costello brings to Tess’ story. The prose is spare and controlled, but the reader feels a sense of closeness to Tess, as if we have near-complete access to her thoughts and emotions. A beautifully written book from one of my favourite contemporary writers.

Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan (2021)

A superb novella set in New Ross, a town in the southeast of Ireland, in the raw-cold days of the run-up to Christmas 1985. Central to the story is Bill Furlong, a hardworking coal and timber merchant who tries to help his clients where he can – dropping off bags of logs to loyal customers, even when they can’t afford to pay. One day, while delivering coal to the local Convent, Furlong sees something genuinely alarming – a sign that proves hard for him to ignore, despite his wife’s reservations about speaking out.

It’s a beautiful, heartbreaking book about the importance of staying true to your values – of doing right by those around you, even if it puts your family’s security and aspirations at risk. Keegan’s prose is simple, pared-back and unadorned, a style that seems fitting given the nature of the story. Nothing feels superfluous here – every word has just the right weight and meaning.

These Days by Lucy Caldwell (2022)

This deeply-moving novel takes as its focal point a series of attacks – the Dockside Raid, the Easter Raid and the Fireside Raids – that took place in Belfast during WW2. Using these devastating real-life events as a springboard, Caldwell has created a really beautiful novel here – an engrossing, evocative portrayal of the Belfast Blitz, seen through the eyes of the Bells, a fictional middle-class family. Caldwell excels in capturing so many aspects of the raids, both physical and emotional. From the fear as people wait for the bombings to start, to the panic of searching for the missing and those who may have perished, to depicting the crushing damage to homes in vivid, unflinching detail. Moreover, she makes us care about her characters, investing in their respective hopes and dreams, concerns and anxieties – and it’s the depth of this emotional investment that makes this portrayal of the Belfast Blitz so powerful and affecting.

In summary, this is a beautiful, lyrical novel – a deeply moving tribute to the resilience of the Belfast people who lost and endured so much during the dark days of the Blitz. 

Do let me know what you think of these books if you’ve read any of them. Hopefully, I’ll be able to fit in another couple of titles during March, including one by a woman. And if you have any favourites by Irish women writers, please feel free to mention them alongside other comments below – personal recommendations are always welcome.

These Days by Lucy Caldwell  

While much has been written about the impact of WW2 on mainland Britain (London in particular), the fate of Northern Ireland has probably not received the same level of attention. It’s a topic that Lucy Caldwell explores vividly and movingly in her exquisite new novel, These Days, which takes as its focal point a series of attacks – the Dockside Raid, the Easter Raid and the Fireside Raids – that took place in Belfast from April to May 1941. Nine hundred people died and more than a thousand were injured in the Easter Raid alone, making it the biggest loss of life in any single night-raid outside of the London Blitz.

Using these devastating events as a springboard, Caldwell has created a really beautiful novel here – an engrossing, evocative portrayal of the Belfast Blitz, seen through the eyes of the Bells, a fictional middle-class family.

Philip Bell, a Belfast-based GP, and his wife, Florence, have been fairly happily married for twenty-two years. They have three children, all living at home: twenty-one-year-old Audrey, who is flighty, impulsive and bookish; eighteen-year-old Emma, a kind, diligent but somewhat awkward girl who volunteers at the local First Aid unit; and thirteen-year-old Paul, a lively boy who enjoys adventures and making dens. By following these individuals through April and May ‘41, we see the impact of the war on a personal level – not just for the Bell family but the broader Belfast community too.

Audrey, a junior clerk at the Belfast tax office, has just become engaged to Richard, a respectable but somewhat stiff doctor who views marriage as the logical next step in their relationship. But through her friendship with Doreen Bates, a bright independently-minded colleague from London, Audrey begins to wonder whether marriage to Richard will be the right option for her. At twenty-one, she is still eager to experience life and the possibilities it has to offer – and while Richard represents safety and security, Audrey wonders whether she truly loves him enough to go through with it.

Meanwhile, at the local First Aid post, Emma is experiencing the first flushes of love, having fallen for Sylvia, a relaxed, self-assured young woman who works alongside her at the station. This flourishing relationship opens up a new world of possibilities for Emma, giving her a sense of ease and confidence that she has struggled to achieve in the past.

Sylvia toasted some bread and split an orange for breakfast, and then they washed and dressed – Emma in a blouse and cotton slacks of Sylvia’s, too short for her, as Sylvia was half a head smaller, so they flapped ridiculously somewhere around the ankles. Who cares, she thought. They went out into the day. (p. 77)

Florence – the girls’ mother – is an interesting character too. While not unhappily married to Philip, Florence still privately mourns the loss of her former love, Reynard, who was killed in the First World War. She allows herself to think of Reynard during the regular Sunday church service, reminiscing on the happiness of times past and what might have been, had he survived.

What Caldwell does so well here is to make us care about these characters, investing in their respective hopes and dreams, concerns and anxieties – and it’s the depth of this emotional investment that makes her portrayal of the Belfast Blitz so powerful and affecting.

Caldwell excels in capturing so many aspects of the raids, both physical and emotional. From the fear as people wait for the bombings to start, to the panic of searching for the missing and those who may have perished, to depicting the crushing damage to homes in vivid, unflinching detail. In one especially striking scene, she describes a house with the front blown off, exposing the contents within – like a doll’s house, the walls studded with daggers of shattered glass.

The fires, the tramlines ripped from the road and pointing up in helpless angles at the sky. A tram car on its side. With every breath, the thick stench of burning lodged deeper in you. The people you passed in the streets, some walking with purpose, some wandering one way, then turning and walking back the other. Others just standing. (pp. 166-167)

She [Audrey] saw a body in the middle of the road, its limbs splayed at an unusual angle. How are we ever going to recover, she thought, from having seen such things? You can’t think about it – your mind will short-circuit if you do. (p. 170)

Alongside the Bells, Caldwell offers glimpses of other families within their orbit, widening her lens to bring in others from the working classes. There’s six-year-old Maisie Gallagher, whom Audrey helps during the carnage of the Easter Raid, and the teenager, Betty Binks, who works alongside Mrs Price, the Bells’ dutiful charwoman. We see how the bombing raids cut across the social classes, uniting women in their suffering and grief as they come to terms with the horrific impact on families.

In addition to the devastation depicted above, there are some lighter moments too – beautifully painted scenes of dances, children playing together, and couples visiting galleries. Shared moments of intimacy and friendship amidst the ravages of war. Caldwell’s prose is wonderfully vivid and impressionistic, similar to Rosamond Lehmann’s style from Invitation to the Waltz.

The Plaza Ballroom, Chichester Street. Nine o’clock, still just about light outside, that heady moment when the evening tilts to night. A queue of laughing couples, trios of girls arm in arm, all waiting their turn to go through the boxy portico with its neon sign, tickets at the booth, coats bundled over to the cloakroom boy, and hurriedly up the stairs, feeling the floor vibrating under their feet. (p. 83)

There are some brilliant scenes depicted here. Perhaps most notably Audrey’s night at the Floral Hall dance (the evening of the Easter bombing raid), and the Gallaghers’ attempt to smuggle two or three ‘luxuries’ across the Irish border from a day trip to Dublin – a passage that highlights the scarcity of basic items such as decent stockings and children’s shoes.

In summary, this is a beautiful, lyrical novel – a deeply moving tribute to the resilience of the Belfast people who lost and endured so much during the dark days of the Blitz. There’s a very heartfelt passage towards the end, recounting with weight and poignancy the roll call of losses across the city. A poetic elegy of great power and sensitivity – just like Caldwell’s novel as a whole, which I truly adored.

These Days is published by Faber & Faber (another for #ReadIndies); my thanks to the Independent Alliance and the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

Intimacies by Lucy Caldwell

Back in October, the Belfast-born writer Lucy Caldwell won the BBC National Short Story Award with All the People Were Mean and Bad, a story of motherhood, chance encounters and the randomness of life. It’s a superb piece – probably the standout in Caldwell’s remarkable collection of stories, Intimacies, published by Faber earlier this year – my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

All eleven stories in Intimacies are concerned with motherhood, mostly featuring young mothers with babies and/or toddlers, while a few focus on pregnancy and mothers to be. Consequently, the collection has a feeling of interconnectedness, a sense of synergy or cumulative effect as the reader moves from one piece to the next.

Caldwell writes so insightfully about the fears young mothers experience when caring for small children. With a rare blend of honesty and compassion, she shows us those heart-stopping moments of anxiety that ambush her protagonists as they go about their days. Moreover, there is an intensity to the emotions that Caldwell captures in her stories, a depth of feeling that seems utterly authentic and true.

Some of the most memorable stories rest on ‘what if’ or ‘what might have been’ moments, opening up the possibility of multiple outcomes for these characters – glimpses perhaps of alternative futures, some of which seem exciting, while others appear terrifying or weighed down by guilt.

In Like This, a busy mother, with a toddler and baby in tow, stops at a café for a brief respite. When the toddler wants to use the toilet – too large for the baby buggy to squeeze into – a friendly lady at a nearby table offers to watch the young woman’s baby. While the mother hurries her toddler along in the cubicle, the foolishness of her actions hits hard. How could she have left the most ‘helpless, precious thing’ she owns with a complete stranger, albeit another mother? Of course, this other woman said she has children of her own; but even so, what sort of mother would take the risk?

When the young woman emerges from the toilet, she is relieved to see that the buggy is still there; the stranger and the baby, however, are nowhere to be seen. In the minutes that follow, Caldwell’s protagonist begins a panic-stricken search for her child as the horror of a future blighted by tragedy plays out in her mind…

The fear and devastation of loss are also detectable in The Children, a fascinating story where a breastfeeding mother finds a lump in her breast. It could be nothing; but then again, it could be something – it’s so hard to tell. As such, we follow the young mother as the lump is investigated, with Caldwell skilfully switching between her protagonist’s medical appointments and work-related preoccupations as she awaits the results. The young mother is researching a story on the social reformer and author Caroline Norton, who found herself trapped in an abusive marriage and assailed by traumatic dreams. Reading Norton’s letters, the protagonist is reminded of her own anxiety dreams and how much she stands to lose, should the lump turn out to be cancer.

Since they were born, I’ve dreamed of losing my babies too. I dream that I’ve left my daughter in a Left Luggage unit and there are hundreds of dully gleaming lockers and I don’t have a key. […] I am dying, and I’m scared, and they tell me to keep calm and hold the hands that reach out for me, and I do, and feel myself pulled from my body. A moment’s relief, then the agony of realising I will never hold my children again. (p. 92)

Fears of a different kind assail the protagonist in Mayday, in which a female student is using some pills procured on the internet to terminate her unwanted pregnancy. (The story is set in Northern Ireland where accessible termination services are still to be commissioned following the legalisation of abortion in October 2019.) As she waits for the medication to work, the young woman experiences a mix of terror, sadness and relief – an overriding belief that she is making the right decision at this point in her life, despite the inherent risks.

She waits for the guilt to start, the regret, but it doesn’t. What does she feel? She tests out emotions. Scared, yes. Definitely scared. She’s deleted her browsing history seventeen, eighteen times. But they have ways of finding these things out, and somewhere, etched onto the Internet, is her name, her address, her PayPal account: what she did. When, where and how. She, or anyone who helps her, could be jailed for life. So, scared. (pp. 19–20)

In interviews, Caldwell has described her interest in writing about liminal or ‘in-between spaces’ (e.g. cars, airports and planes), where ‘time seems to stop, or is elsewhere for a while’, where alternative outcomes or different life paths open up, albeit momentarily. This is particularly true of the prize-winning story, All the People Were Mean and Bad, in which a young mother is on a night flight from Vancouver to London – the journey home from her cousin’s funeral. She is accompanied by her daughter – a toddler too young to have her own seat but too old to sit comfortably on her mother’s lap. The story’s title comes from a book about Noah’s Ark, which the mother hates but reads to her daughter, giving in to the child’s need to be occupied during the flight.

As the night unfolds, the mother gets chatting to the man in the adjacent seat, a fifty-six-year-old divorcee with children of his own – now fully grown. The man is kind and helpful, sympathetic to the young mother’s situation, travelling on her own with a restless child in need of comfort and distraction.   

This beautifully crafted story explores the gaps between who we are now and who we thought we would become, say ten or twenty ago. How our lives invariably turn out to be quite different from the futures we once imagined, often without clearly defined plans or conscious decisions on our part.

How time as a measure is, for a while, entirely meaningless, in this time out of time, and how distance is too, and about the distances we travel, between where we come from and where we end up, between who we thought we were and who we turn out to be. (pp. 126–127)

You have Riedel wine glasses and Dartington Crystal champagne flutes yourself now, and Japanese knives and a proper knife-sharpener, and sometimes, even peonies in vases, or at least in a vase. Where has it all come from? How have you graduated, almost without noticing, from novelty shot glasses and wine glasses nicked from pubs, thick-rimmed and engraved with measures, to this? […] And yet: you can’t shake the sense that it has all crept up on you without your wanting or asking for it, without your feeling any different than you did at twenty-nine, twenty-seven, or, yes, twenty-four (p. 124)

It’s also about the possibility of taking a different path in the future, how our lives can turn on the tiniest moments – split-second decisions that open up the possibility of excitement and desire alongside danger and guilt. There is a frisson of attraction between these two travellers, adding a degree of tension, a sense of will-they-or-won’t-they, to the scene when they should part.

I’ve barely scratched the surface of this luminous collection of stories, but hopefully it’s given you a flavour of what to expect. Caldwell writes beautifully about motherhood, womanhood, life-changing moments and alternative futures. By zooming in on her protagonists’ hopes, fears, preoccupations and desires, Caldwell has found the universal in the personal, offering stories that will resonate with many of us, irrespective of our personal circumstances.

The Doctor’s Wife by Brian Moore

My second review for Karen and Simon’s #1976Club is The Doctor’s Wife, the Booker shortlisted novel by the Belfast-born writer Brian Moore. Set against the backdrop of Northern Ireland in the mid-1970s, this compelling narrative explores the tensions between personal freedoms and the restrictions imposed by marriage, particularly in a traditional society.

The novel’s focus is Sheila Redden, a thirty-seven-year-old woman who lives in Belfast with her surgeon husband, Kevin, and their fifteen-year-old son, Danny. Attractive and intelligent by nature, Sheila married young, sacrificing any personal aspirations for a life of marriage, motherhood and domesticity. Now, sixteen years after their wedding, Sheila has persuaded Kevin to return to Villefranche on the French Riviera for a second honeymoon, a chance perhaps to rekindle their relationship after years of stagnation.

When the pressures of the surgery cause a delay, Sheila sets off for France alone, hoping that Kevin will follow two or three days later, despite his apparent reluctance to travel. En route to the South of France, Sheila stops in Paris to stay the night with Peg, a friend from her student days, and it is here in the city that the stability of her marriage is derailed. When Sheila meets Tom Lowry – a carefree American graduate ten years her junior – the attraction between the two of them is instant and undeniable. To Sheila, Tom represents freedom, opportunity and the possibility of fulfilment – elements that have been sorely lacking in her life for the past several years.

She turned to him, seeing him toss his long dark hair, his eyes shining, his walk eager, as though he and she were hurrying off to some exciting rendezvous. And at once she was back in Paris in her student days, as though none of the intervening years had happened, those years of cooking meals, and buying Danny’s school clothes, being nice to Kevin’s mother, and having other doctors and their wives in for dinner parties, all that laundry list of events that had been her life since she married Kevin. (p. 27)

Before she knows it, Sheila is embroiled in a passionate affair, a relationship that deepens in intensity when firstly, Tom follows her to Villefranche and secondly, Kevin’s departure for France is further delayed. Naturally, Kevin eventually discovers what his wife has been up to, enlisting the help of her brother, Owen – another doctor – in his attempts to persuade his wife to return home.

As in The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, Moore demonstrates his ability to get into the minds of his characters – skilfully conveying their hopes and dreams, their failings and violations. With the exception of Tom – who feels rather lightly sketched compared to the other individuals in the novel – the characterisation is excellent, rich in detail and shading. Owen Deane is a particular case in point, a man caught between a sense of loyalty and duty of care towards his sister and the pressure being wielded by Kevin in his attempts to bring Sheila ‘to her senses’.

As the narrative plays out, Sheila must try to reconcile her marital commitments and responsibilities with the lure of freedom and fulfilment. Over the years, she has been ground down by Kevin, complete with his patriarchal attitude and petty jealousies – issues that bubble up now and again whenever another man shows an interest. It is no accident that Sheila is referred to as ‘Mrs Redden’ throughout the novel, a woman defined by her position in the marriage.

The novel also explores mental illness and how men sometimes try to use this excuse as leverage to control women, particularly those they consider to be wilful or wayward. The shadow of religion is another visible presence, adding to the complexities of the struggle between family loyalties and personal liberation. There is a lot going on in this subtle novel, even if I didn’t quite buy into Tom as a character and the speed with which he fell for Sheila Redden…

The Doctor’s Wife is published by Bloomsbury; personal copy.

The Visitor by Maeve Brennan

A couple of years ago I read The Springs of Affection, a beautifully affecting collection of stories by the Irish writer and journalist Maeve Brennan. What struck me most about those stories was the strong sense of emotional dislocation they conveyed, particularly though their focus on lonely, unhappy individuals, often trapped in loveless marriages. The characters seemed caught in a form of stasis, unable to reach out to one another while unspoken bitterness and resentment festered away and remained unchecked.  

There is a similar air of bitterness and resentment in The Visitor, a novella that was published posthumously in 2000 following its discovery in publishing archives that had been acquired by the University of Notre Dame in the 1980s. It is not known when Brennan first started work on The Visitor, but she is thought to have finished it in the mid-1940s. As such, it is one of her earliest works of fiction, all the more astonishing considering its power and precision – it’s remarkably accomplished for such an early piece.

As the novella opens, twenty-two-year-old Anastasia King is returning to her childhood home in Dublin, a house owned by her paternal grandmother, Mrs King. When Anastasia was sixteen, her mother and father split up, the mother fleeing to Paris and subsequently sending for Anastasia to join her there. As a consequence, Anastasia has been living in Paris for six years. Now both of Anastasia’s parents are dead, leaving the girl with no remaining family other than Mrs King – hence Anastasia’s belief that she will be able to live with her grandmother (and the latter’s elderly housekeeper, Katherine) going forward.

Mrs King, however, has a different view of the situation. She still blames Anastasia’s mother for the break-up of her son’s marriage, thereby bringing shame and disgrace on her son and the King family as a whole. Anastasia is also guilty of desertion in her grandmother’s eyes, having followed her mother to Paris to take up residence away from her father. As such, Mrs King is cold and remote in her receipt of Anastasia in the family home, making it clear that she considers the visit a temporary one, not a permanent arrangement.

Mrs K is a brilliant creation – cold, direct, monstrous and self-centred. She shows precious little warmth or compassion towards Anastasia who is recently bereaved. What I find particularly interesting about this elderly lady is how she views Anastasia both as an adult and as a child, choosing whichever of these states suits her best on each particular occasion.

For instance, Mrs King condemns Anastasia for having followed her mother to Paris, thereby deserting her father – Mrs King’s precious son – in the process. As far as Mrs King sees it, Anastasia was an adult at sixteen, someone who knew full well what she was doing in choosing to live with her mother.

Mrs King said in her gentle voice, “You know, Anastasia, you made a serious choice when you decided to stay with your mother in Paris. You were sixteen then, not a child. You knew what she had done. You were aware of the effect it was having on your father.” (p. 16)

And yet, Mrs King repeatedly refers to Anastasia as a child during their blunt conversations following the young woman’s return – “Now, child, get along to your bed. It’s very late. You’ll be dead tired in the morning.”— thereby emphasising her own dominance in the relationship. This vacillation between the positioning of her granddaughter as an adult or a child, depending on whichever of these suits her best at the time, is just one way in which Mrs King seeks to belittle Anastasia, closing off any expectations of comfort or affection.

As the narrative unfolds, it becomes clear that Mrs King played a major part in her daughter-in-law’s defection. When Anastasia’s parents were living together with Mrs King, there was an air of tension in the Dublin house; Anastasia’s mother felt belittled by her mother-in-law’s spiteful actions, a form of passive-aggressive behaviour or ‘campaign of cruelty’ as Clare Boylan neatly terms it in her introduction to the novella.

As in The Springs of Affection, Brennan excels in conveying the sense of isolation or separateness that can arise between family members occupying the same dwelling. Rather than living together and sharing a sense of connectedness, Anastasia and Mrs King remain emotionally distanced from one another in the unwelcoming, lifeless house.

The Christmas season passed. The days came and went, bringing nothing. There was a listlessness about the house but had seemed absent in the days before Christmas. The grandmother sat daily by the fire and Anastasia seldom joined her. With the growing of the year their separate lives seemed to dwindle away in shyness, and the house enclosed them aloofly, like a strange house that had not known them when they were happier. (p. 44)

The concepts of ‘home’ and ‘belonging’ are important themes in Brennan’s fiction, and the associations these notions spark can be painful and complex.

Home is a place in the mind. When it is empty, it frets. It is fretful with memory, faces and places and times gone by. Beloved images rise up in disobedience and make a mirror for emptiness. […] It is a silly creature that tries to get a smile from even the most familiar and loving shadow. Comical and hopeless, the long gaze back is always turned inward. (p. 8)

The novella’s mood is enhanced by Brennan’s use of imagery and sounds to heighten the unsettling atmosphere, the ghostly silence in the grandmother’s house, broken only by the crackling of the fire or the scrape of a knife across a slice of toast. There is some wonderful descriptive writing here, imagery to send a shiver down the spine.

The trees around Noon Square grew larger, as daylight faded. Darkness stole out of the thickening trees and slurred the thin iron railings around the houses, and spread quickly across the front gardens, making the grass go black and taking the colour from the flowers. The darkness of night fell on the green park in the middle of the square, and rose fast to envelop the tall patient houses all around. The street lamps drew flats circles of light around them and settled down for the night. (p. 13)

As the novella builds towards its unnerving conclusion, we begin to see another side to Anastasia’s personality, one that reveals a degree of selfishness or ambivalence towards the wishes of others. I’ll leave to to discover this for yourself, should you decide to read the book (which I hope you do). Suffice it to say that this plotline involves an old friend of Mrs King’s – an elderly spinster named Miss Kilbride, who appeals to Anastasia for help with an act of compassion. Miss Kilbride has also suffered at the hands of an embittered and jealous family member – in this instance her mother – which adds a resonance with the novella’s main storyline.   

The Visitor is achingly sad yet beautifully written, the kind of story that highlights just how destructive family relationships can be when grievances and feelings of selfishness are allowed to putrefy and fester. Heaven Ali has also written about this book; and as ever, her insightful post is well worth reading. Hopefully my piece will expand the conversation around this lesser-known gem and introduce others to Maeve Brennan, a writer who deserves to be so much better-known.

My copy of The Visitor was published by New Island Books; personal copy.

Mrs Eckdorf in O’Neill’s Hotel by William Trevor

Over the past couple of years, I’ve been working my way through some of William Trevor’s novels – mostly the early ones with their notes of dark comedy and undeniable tragedy. Mrs Eckdorf is very much of a piece with the others from this period. First published in 1969, it is something of a bridge between The Boarding House (1965) and The Children of Dynmouth (1976), both of which I adored.

The novel’s catalyst is the titular Mrs Eckdorf – a most annoying and invasive woman who has fashioned a career as a photographer, exploiting the lives of unfortunate individuals around the world, their existences touched by devastation. Large coffee-table style books are this woman’s stock-in-trade – a forerunner of the poverty porn images that are rather controversial today.

As the novel opens, Mrs Eckdorf is on route to Dublin, eager to pay a visit to O’Neill’s Hotel, having heard about the establishment from a bartender on a ship. The hotel itself is central to the book; once grand and distinguished (the sort of place frequented by actors and commercial travellers), it has now fallen into disrepute, its faded glory being a kind of metaphor for declining moral standards.

The hotel is owned by Mrs Sinnott, a ninety-one-year-old deaf-mute woman who can only communicate with others through her notebooks. Various other characters – mostly orphans – frequent the hotel, having been drawn to Mrs Sinnott over the years, confiding their stories to the old lady in a way that feels similar to a religious confession. As a consequence, the notebooks represent a rich source of information, documenting the preoccupations of each of Mrs Sinnott’s visitors – their hopes and dreams, their fears and disappointments.

The hotel itself is largely run by O’Shea, an ageing porter who longs for a return to the glory days of the past. Permanently trailed by his greyhound, O’Shea cuts a somewhat tragic figure, albeit one who has Mrs Sinnott’s best interests at heart. Also residing at the hotel is Mrs S’s son, Eugene, a rather thoughtless, feckless man whose prime interests appear to be drinking and gambling – mostly on greyhound races – much to O’Shea’s disgust. 

When Mrs Eckdorf arrives at O’Neill’s, O’Shea takes a shine to her, mistakenly believing that she may wish to purchase the hotel. Perhaps as a consequence of this misunderstanding, O’Shea longs to pour his heart out to Mrs Eckdorf, viewing her as a kind of saviour and potential ally against Eugene.

He’d have liked to repeat the conversation that had taken place that morning in the kitchen between himself and Eugene Sinnott, explaining to her [Mrs Eckdorf] that for the past three years Eugene Sinnott had insisted on giving his mother a pencil sharpener for her birthday and was again insisting on it, that he had gone on about a greyhound race instead of devoting thought to the question of the birthday present.

Mrs Sinnott’s ninety-second birthday is fast approaching, a date that Mrs Eckdorf believes is particularly significant – not just to the old lady but to the broader Sinnott family. There are hints of a tragedy that took place precisely twenty-eight years earlier – a story that Mrs Eckdorf is keen to uncover, potentially as the source material for another of her books. With this in mind, Mrs Eckdorf proceeds to inveigle her way into the Sinnott family, just in time for the birthday celebrations in all their unvarnished glory.

As ever with William Trevor, the dialogue is excellent, frequently highlighting the mordant humour that seems so indicative of his early work. It’s a style typified by the following passage in which Eugene Sinnott is virtually powerless in the face of Mrs Eckdorf, complete with all her fake charm and flattery.   

‘Now listen,’ said Eugene, stepping in front of O’Shea. ‘Listen, Mrs Eckdorf, this is a bad time to stay here. Tomorrow there’s an occasion here, a lot of people coming, a family thing. It’d be awkward with a stranger about.’

‘Mr Sinnott, I’m like a mouse.’

‘Added to which, there’s only myself and O’Shea. There’s no cook in the kitchen or anything like that. The dining-room hasn’t been entered since we had a farmer from Monaghan here two months ago, a man O’Shea found wandering –’

‘Oh God, I love your way of talking,’ cried Mrs Eckdorf. ‘All the time this morning I’ve met only the nicest and now it’s best of all. Any old bed will do, and a meat tea I adore.’ (pp. 84–85)

Also on Mrs Eckdorf’s hit list are the other members of Mrs Sinnott family, all of whom are brilliantly drawn by the author in his characteristically insightful style. There is Eugene’s estranged wife, Philomena, whose primary concern is her son, Timothy John, and his burgeoning relationship with a girl from Lipton’s cheese counter – the wonderfully-named Daisy Tulip. Mrs Sinnott’s daughter, Enid, is a particularly tragic case, trapped in a loveless marriage to the bemused Mr Gregan, a man with absolutely no awareness of just how unhappy and lonely his wife feels on a continual basis. As the novel unfolds, the developments that led to this relationship are revealed, deepening the poignancy of their isolation from one another.

He had explained to her once that a brooch she had seen in a shop in Nassau Street would be of little use to her since there would never be an occasion in her life when she could wear it. (p. 34)

In the hall she shook her head. She held back her sobs. His voice questioned her again, and she said again that she was upset. She said she was fifty-one years of age and had borne no children. She said that for some reason she couldn’t bear the thought of his growing tomatoes in his field. She said that for some reason she couldn’t bear the thought of seeing him on his bicycle. (p. 37)

Other characters of note include Morrissey, a seedy little pimp who sleeps in one of the corridors of O’Neill’s hotel, effectively using the place as a brothel for various women on his books. Agnes Quin, for her sins, has fallen into Morrissey’s clutches; nevertheless, there are glimmers of hope for Agnes, a young woman who dreams of Hollywood and Olivia de Havilland.

Having installed herself at the hotel, Mrs Eckdorf wastes little time in tracking down these individuals, using her discussions to create a mental picture of their backstories, notably enhanced by the conversations in Mrs S’s notebooks. Naturally, the books prove to be a rich seam of information for Mrs E, a veritable treasure trove just waiting to be exploited… 

As the birthday tea gets underway, Mrs Eckdorf continues to make a nuisance of herself, intruding on the privacy of the occasion, snapping people left, right, and centre for her *art*. Despite several protestations from the Sinnott family, Mrs E is determined to persist — an activity that ultimately leads to her downfall, revealing a disturbed and deluded individual underneath all the bravado.

Once again, William Trevor proves himself a master of the tragicomedy, crafting a story that marries humour and poignancy in broadly equal measure. (There’s a marvellous farcical sequence in which a Mr Smedley, a cardboard salesman from England, is fobbed off with another of Morrissey’s women when Agnes Quin fails to show. It is the beginning of another undoing – in this instance, that of a relative innocent, ‘a man of vigour’ caught in the fray.)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Trevor’s interest lies in various aspects of human behaviour, particularly the darker or less appealing facets of our personalities. There is a seedy malevolence to some of these characters, a sense of selfishness and exploitation of others that some readers might not enjoy (despite its authenticity). Nevertheless, there is evidence of sympathy and compassion too, certainly enough to balance the tone. All in all, this is another finely observed novel from one of my favourite writers – I loved it.

Mrs Eckdorf in O’Neill’s Hotel is published by Penguin Books; personal copy. Read for Cathy’s Reading Ireland month, which runs throughout March.

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.