Tag Archives: William Trevor

Boarding-house novels – a few of my favourites from the shelves  

A few weeks ago, I posted a list of some of my favourite novels set in hotels, featuring much-loved modern classics such as Vicki Baum’s Grand Hotel, Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac and Elizabeth Taylor’s Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont. The post proved quite a hit, with many of you adding your own recommendations in the comments. Many thanks for those suggestions – I now have several excellent possibilities to check out!

As promised in the ‘hotels’ post, here’s my follow-up piece on boarding-house novels, an interesting variant on the theme. While boarding houses have been around since the 19th century, they were particularly common in the first half of the 20th century, offering each ‘boarder’ the opportunity to rent a room cost-effectively, particularly in towns or cities.

Just like hotel guests, every boarder comes with their own backstory, habits and peculiarities, throwing up the potential for drama, romance or tension as different individuals interact, especially in the communal areas of the house. There’s also a seedy ‘feel’ to many boarding houses, a sleazy, down-at-heel atmosphere that adds to their appeal – certainly as settings for fiction if not places to live!

So, without further ado, here are a few of my favourite boarding house novels from the shelves. 

Voyage in the Dark by Jean Rhys (1934)

Voyage is narrated by Anna Morgan, an eighteen-year-old girl brought to England from her former home in the West Indies by her stepmother, a selfish woman who all but abandons Anna after her father’s death. What follows is a gradual unravelling as Anna drifts around in a state of depression, moving from one down-at-heel room to another, slipping unconsciously into a state of dependency, turning to drink and sleeping with men in the hope of some much-needed comfort. This is a brilliant, devastating book, played out against a background of loneliness and despair – all the more powerful for its connection to Rhys’ own life.

The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton (1947)

Perhaps the quintessential boarding house novel, this darkly comic tragicomedy revolves around Miss Roach, a spinster in her late thirties whose drab and dreary existence is mirrored by the suffocating atmosphere in her lodgings, The Rosamund Tea Rooms. Located in the fictional riverside town of Thames Lockdon, The Rosamond is home to a peculiar mix of misfits – lonely individuals on the fringes of life. Holding court over the residents is fellow boarder, the ghastly Mr Thwaites, a consummate bully who delights in passing judgements on others, much to Miss Roach’s discomfort. Hamilton excels at capturing the stifling atmosphere of the boarding house and the stealthy nature of war, stealing people’s pleasures and even their most basic necessities. A brilliant introduction to the boarding-house milieu. 

Of Love and Hunger by Julian Maclaren-Ross (1947)

Set in the 1940s, this marvellous novel is narrated by Richard Fanshawe, a young man who finds himself in the unenviable position of trying to eke out a living by selling vacuum cleaners to sceptical housewives. The story is shot through with dark humour, much of which stems from Maclaren-Ross’ wonderfully sharp observations on Fanshawe’s experiences as a salesman and life at the boarding house where he rents a room. Constantly in arrears with the rent and heavily reliant on credit, Fanshawe never seems to have enough money in his pockets. He’s living from one day to the next, but there’s always the hope that wealthy Uncle George will come through with a cheque to tide him over for a while. Meanwhile, Fanshawe’s landlady is on the lookout for any signs of money…Running alongside this storyline is a touch of romance as Fanshawe falls for a colleague’s wife, Sukie, while her husband is away – a relationship played out against the backdrop of prying landladies, seaside cafes and picnics in the woods. This terrific novel is highly recommended, especially for Patrick Hamilton fans.

The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark (1963)

The setting for this one is The May of Teck, a large boarding house/hostel ‘for Ladies of Slender Means below the age of Thirty’, situated in London’s Kensington. Despite the novel’s wartime setting, there’s a wonderful boarding-school-style atmosphere in The May of Teck, with a glamorous Schiaparelli gown passing from one girl to another for various important dates. Spark is particularly good on the social hierarchy that has developed within the hostel, with the youngest girls occupying dormitory-style rooms on the first floor, those with a little more money sharing smaller rooms on the second, while the most attractive, sophisticated girls occupy the top floor, a status that reflects their interesting jobs and active social lives. By turns sharp, witty, touching and poignant, this evocative novel touches on some dark and surprising themes with a dramatic conclusion to boot.

The Boarding-House by William Trevor (1965)

I loved this darkly comic novel set in a South London boarding house in the mid-1960s. At first, Mr Bird’s tenants appear to be a disparate bunch, each lodger possessing their own individual characteristics and personality traits. However, it soon becomes clear that they are all solitary figures, a little flawed or inadequate in some way, hovering on the fringes of mainstream society. Residents include Major Eele, an old-school eccentric with a penchant for strip clubs; Mr Scribbin, a railway enthusiast who spends his nights listening to gramophone records of steam trains; and Rose Cave, a gentle, middle-aged woman who remains haunted by the memory of her dead mother. All of these characters are drawn by Trevor with great precision and clarity in such a way that gently elicits the reader’s sympathy. Moreover, their existences are marked by a deep sadness or loneliness, an air of missed opportunities and unfulfilled potential as life has passed them by. In short, this is a brilliantly observed novel, a wickedly funny tragicomedy of the highest order.

The House of Dolls by Barbara Comyns (1989)

We’re back in Kensington for this one, set in a London boarding house in the midst of the swinging ‘60s. Amy Doll, a widow in her mid-thirties, has four female boarders – all middle-aged or elderly, all divorced or widowed and cast adrift from any immediate family. Low on funds and in need of support to pay the rent, the ladies have turned their hands to a little light prostitution, fashioning a sort of ‘lounge’ for elderly gentlemen in Amy’s drawing-room. Central to this operation are Berti and Evelyn – both stick-thin and well past their prime. With her dyed red hair and skin-tight clothes, Berti is the more formidable of the pair, a rather nosy, bawdy woman who proves difficult for Amy to control. Almost as troublesome is Evelyn – ‘a poor man’s version of Berti’ with her blue rinse and slightly tragic air. This is a charming, wickedly funny novel with some serious themes at its heart – how sometimes our hands are forced by unfortunate circumstances – loneliness, poverty, abandonment or adversity. A lesser-known Comyns, but well worth your time.

Also worthy of an honourable mention or two:

  • R. C. Sherriff’s charming 1931 novel The Fortnight in September, in which the Stevens family take their annual holiday at Bognor’s Seaview boarding house, a traditional establishment that has seen better days;
  • Olivia Manning’s excellent 1951 novel School for Love, a wonderfully compelling coming-of-age story set in Jerusalem towards the end of WW2. Notable for the monstrous Miss Bohun, who presides over the central setting – a boarding house of sorts;
  • Patricia Highsmith’s The Sweet Sickness (1960) – an immersive story of obsession, desire and fantasy. David, the novel’s central protagonist, spends much of his time fending off unwanted attention from the other residents at Mrs McCartney’s boarding house, his shabby residence in New York;
  • Beryl Bainbridge’s An Awfully Big Adventure (1989) – a most enjoyable novel set in the theatrical world of 1950s Liverpool, with a down-at-heel boarding house to boot;

Do let me know your thoughts if you’ve read any of these books. Or maybe you have some favourite boarding-house novels that you’d like to share with others – I’m sure there are many more I’ve yet to discover, so please feel free to mention them below.

Hotel novels – a few of my favourites from the shelves  

This is a post I’ve been meaning to put together for a while, a celebration of my favourite novels set in hotels. There’s something particularly fascinating about this type of location as a vehicle for fiction – a setting that brings together a range of different individuals who wouldn’t normally encounter one another away from the hotel. Naturally, there’s some potential for drama as various guests and members of staff mingle with one another, especially in the communal areas – opportunities the sharp-eyed writer can duly exploit to good effect.

While some guests will be holidaying at the hotels, others may be there for different reasons – travellers on business trips, for instance, or people recovering from illness or some other kind of trauma. Then we have the hotel staff and long-term residents, more permanent fixtures in the hotel’s fabric, so to speak. All have interesting stories to tell, irrespective of their positions. So here are a few of my favourites from the shelves.

Grand Hotel by Vicki Baum (1929 – tr. Basil Creighton)

Perhaps the quintessential hotel novel, this engaging story revolves around the experiences of six central characters as they brush up against one another in this glamorous Berlin setting. There are moments of significant darkness amid the lightness as Baum skilfully weaves her narrative together, moving from one player to another with ease (her sense of characterisation is particularly strong). At the centre of the novel is the idea that sometimes our lives can change direction in surprising ways as we interact with others. We see fragments of these people’s lives as they come and go from the hotel. Some are on their way up and are altered for the better, while others are less fortunate and emerge diminished. A thoroughly captivating gem with an evocative Weimar-era setting.

The Feast by Margaret Kennedy (1950)

Part morality tale, part mystery, part family saga/social comedy, Kennedy’s delightful novel was reissued last year by Faber in a fabulous new edition. This very cleverly constructed story – which takes place at The Pendizack cliffside hotel, Cornwall, in the summer of 1947 – unfolds over the course of a week, culminating in a dramatic picnic ‘feast’, Kennedy draws on an inverted structure, revealing part of her denouement upfront, while omitting crucial details about a fatal disaster. Consequently, the reader is in the dark as to who dies and who survives the tragedy until the novel’s end. What Kennedy does so well here is to weave an immersive story around the perils of the seven deadly sins, into which she skilfully incorporates the loathsome behaviours of her characters – both guests and members of staff alike. A wonderfully engaging book with some serious messages at its heart.

Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner (1984)

Another big hitter here, and one of my favourites in the list. As this perceptive novel opens, Edith Hope – an unmarried writer of romantic fiction – has just been packed off by her respectable, interfering friends to the Hotel du Lac, a rather austere establishment of high repute in the Swiss countryside. Right from the start, it’s clear that Edith has been banished from her sector of society, sent away to reflect on her misdemeanours, to ‘become herself again’ following some undisclosed scandal. (The reason for Edith’s exile is eventually revealed, but not until the last third of the book.) Central to the novel is the question of what kind of life Edith can carve out for herself, a dilemma that throws up various points for debate. Will she return to her solitary existence at home, complete with its small pleasures and its sense of freedom and independence? Or will she agree to compromise, to marry for social acceptability if not love? You’ll have to read the book itself to find out…

Mrs Eckdorf in O’Neill’s Hotel by William Trevor (1969)

We’re in much darker territory here with William Trevor, a writer whose work I’ve been reading steadily over the past four or five years. Mrs Eckdorf is very much of a piece with Trevor’s other novels from the 1970s – sad, somewhat sinister and beautifully observed. 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. With her nose for tragedy and a potentially lucrative story, Trevor’s protagonist inveigles her way into the Sinnott family, just in time for a landmark birthday celebration for the hotel’s owner, the elderly Mrs Sinnott. Once again, William Trevor proves himself a master of the tragicomedy, crafting a story that marries humour and poignancy in broadly equal measure.

The Hotel by Elizabeth Bowen (1927)

Bowen’s striking debut is a story of unsuitable attachments – more specifically, the subtle power dynamics at play among various privileged guests holidaying at a high-class hotel on the Italian Riviera. The narrative revolves around Sydney Warren, a somewhat remote yet spirited young woman in her early twenties, and the individuals she meets on her trip. 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 particularly wonderful details on hotel etiquette here. If you like Edith Wharton’s ‘society’ novels, The Hotel may well appeal.

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor (1971)

One of my all-time favourite novels, Mrs Palfrey is a something of a masterpiece, marrying bittersweet humour with a deeply poignant thread. In essence Taylor’s story follows a recently widowed elderly lady, Mrs Palfrey, as she moves into London’s Claremont Hotel. Here she joins a group of long-term residents in similar positions to herself, each one likely to remain there until illness intervenes and a move to a nursing home or hospital can no longer be avoided. This is a beautiful, thought-provoking novel, prompting the reader to consider the emotional and physical challenges of ageing – more specifically, our need to participate in life, the importance of small acts of kindness and the desire to feel valued, irrespective of our age. Taylor’s observations of social situations and the foibles of human nature are spot-on – there are some wonderfully funny moments here amid the poignancy and sadness. An undisputed gem that reveals more on subsequent readings, especially as we grow older ourselves.  

Other honourable mentions include the following books:

  • Rosamond Lehmann’s marvellous The Weather in the Streets (1936), in which the devastation of Olivia and Rollo’s doomed love affair plays out against the backdrop of dark, secluded restaurants and stuffy, sordid hotels;
  • Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky (1949), a powerful, visceral novel set in the squalid towns and desert landscapes of North Africa in the years following the end of the Second World War. As Port and Kit Moresby (Bowles’ troubled protagonists) travel across the stiflingly hot desert, the hotels grow more sordid with each successive move, putting further strain on the couple’s fractured marriage;
  • Finally, there’s Strange Hotel (2020), Eimear McBride’s immersive, enigmatic novel, where inner thoughts and self-reflections are more prominent than narrative and plot.

Do let me know your thoughts if you’ve read any of these books (you can buy most of them here via Bookshop.Org, together with a few other suggestions). Or maybe you have some favourite hotel novels that you’d like to share with others – I’m sure there are many more I’ve yet to discover, so please feel free to mention them below.

PS I’m also planning to do a ‘boarding house’ version of this post at some point, something that will come as no surprise to those who know me well!

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.

My favourite books from a year of reading, 2021 – part two, older books

This year, I’m spreading my highlights from a year of reading across two posts. The first piece focused on my favourite ‘recently published’ titles, while this second one puts the spotlight on the best ‘older’ books from my 2021 reading, most of which were written in the 20th century.

These are the backlisted books I loved, the books that have stayed with me, the ones I’m most likely to recommend to other readers. I’ve summarised each one in this post (in order of reading), but as before, you can find the full reviews by clicking on the appropriate links.

The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton

Subtle, sophisticated and richly imagined, this unsettling collection of Wharton’s Ghost Stories is a veritable treat. Characterised by the tensions between restraint and passion, respectability and impropriety, Wharton’s narratives are rooted in reality, with the ghostly chills mostly stemming from psychological factors. The fear of the unknown, the power of the imagination and the judicious use of supernatural imagery to unnerve the soul are all in evidence here. As one would expect with Wharton, the writing is first class and the characters brilliantly drawn, with sufficient depth and subtlety to appear fully convincing. A wonderfully chilling collection of tales, tapping into the dark side of American history and human relationships.

Lost Cat by Mary Gaitskill

A thoughtful, beautifully-written rumination on love, loss, grief and the nature of pain, especially where our feelings for others are concerned. While staying at a writing retreat in Italy, Gaitskill is cajoled into adopting a scrawny, feral kitten, whom she names Gattino. Not long after Mary and her husband move house, Gattino mysteriously disappears, thereby reawakening various emotions, previously suppressed feelings of guilt surrounding the death of Gaitskill’s father. In many ways, Lost Cat is an exploration of the complexities of human emotion, of how we try to offer love to another individual (or animal), whether they are accepting of it or not. While the Daunt Books edition came out in 2020, this powerful extended essay first appeared in the Granta literary journal in 2009.

The Sleeping Beauty by Elizabeth Taylor

This loose re-working of the age-old fairy tale is another of Taylor’s marvellous ensemble pieces, very much in line novels such as A View of the Harbour and The Soul of Kindness, where the focus moves from one individual to another as their lives intertwine. The novel is set in Seething, a small seaside town in the early 1950s, and as ever with this author, the characters are brilliantly observed. What I love about this her work are the insights she brings to her characters’ inner lives, their thoughts and interactions with others, and how their experiences and preoccupations reveal themselves over time. There is a combination of depth, complexity and veracity to these individuals that makes them feel human, complete with emotions and motivations that remain relevant some seventy years after publication. Possibly underrated in the Taylor oeuvre, but for me it’s a gem.

Black Narcissus by Rumer Godden

This is a glorious book – an evocative story of nuns, misguided actions and, perhaps most significantly of all, repressed female desire. A small group of Anglican nuns set out to establish a new convent, high up in the Himalayan mountains, a place steeped in beauty and mystery. As the weeks go by, the Sisters begin to fall under the setting’s spell, surrounded by the heady atmosphere of disruption and beauty. Consequently, each Sister becomes obsessed with a particular passion, causing them to neglect their spirituality in favour of more personal desires. Tensions – both sexual and otherwise – abound in this sensual novel, stepped in lush visual imagery. In creating Black Narcissus, Godden has given us a rich exploration of the tensions between competing desires, one that also touches on the follies of colonialism in subtle and memorable ways. Highly recommended, even for devoted fans of the Powell and Pressburger film, such as myself!

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 his others from the 1970s, and is something of a bridge between The Boarding-House and The Children of Dynmouth, both of which I loved. 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. Once again, William Trevor proves himself a master of the tragicomedy, crafting a story that marries humour and poignancy in broadly equal measure.

Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead by Barbara Comyns

There is something distinctly English about the world that Barbara Comyns portrays in this novel, a surreal eccentricity that could only be found within the England of old. Set in 1911, three years before the advent of the First World War, Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead has all the hallmarks of a classic Comyns novel: enchanting, innocent children, caught up in a dysfunctional family; memorable, vivid imagery, typically with an off-kilter edge; and a simple, matter-of-fact delivery that belies the horrors within. Another strikingly creative work from one of Britain’s most singular writers – a darkly humorous novel of great brilliance and originality with an allegorical nod to the First World War.

Chatterton Square by E. H. Young

Probably the richest, most satisfying entry in the British Library’s Women Writers series so far, Chatterton Square is a novel of contrasts, an exploration of lives – women’s lives in particular – in the run-up to the Second World War. On the surface, Chatterton appears to be a straightforward story of two neighbouring families – one relatively happy and functional, the other much more constrained. However, the degree of depth and nuance that Young brings to her portraits of the main characters makes it a particularly compelling read – more so than my description suggests. Set in Upper Radstowe’s Chatterton Square – a place modelled on Bristol’s Clifton – the novel features one of the most pompous characters I’ve encountered this year: Herbert Blackett, a conceited, self-absorbed puritan who considers himself vastly superior to his more relaxed neighbours.

The Island by Ana María Matute (tr. Laura Lonsdale)

Set on the island of Mallorca, shortly after the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, The Island is a darkly evocative coming-of-age narrative with a creeping sense of oppression. With her mother no longer alive and her father away in the war, Matia has been taken to the island to live with her grandmother (or ‘abuela’), Aunt Emilia and cousin Borja – not a situation she relishes. Matute excels in her depiction of Mallorca as an alluring yet malevolent setting, drawing on striking descriptions of natural world to reinforce the impression of danger. It’s a brutal and oppressive place, torn apart by familial tensions and longstanding political divisions. As this visceral novella draws to a close, Matia is left with few illusions about the adult world. The beloved fables and fairy tales of her childhood are revealed to be fallacies, contrasting starkly with the duplicity, betrayal and cruelty she sees being played out around her. A unsettling summer read.

The Fortnight in September by R. C. Sherriff

During a trip to Bognor in the early 1930s, R. C. Sherriff was inspired to create a story centred on a fictional family by imagining their lives and, most importantly, their annual September holiday at the seaside resort. While this premise seems simple on the surface, the novel’s apparent simplicity is a key part of its magical charm. Here we have a story of small pleasures and triumphs, quiet hopes and ambitions, secret worries and fears – the illuminating moments in day-to-day life. By focusing on the minutiae of the everyday, Sheriff has crafted something remarkable – a novel that feels humane, compassionate and deeply affecting, where the reader can fully invest in the characters’ inner lives. This is a gem of a book, as charming and unassuming as one could hope for, a throwback perhaps to simpler, more modest times.

Passing by Nella Larsen

Larsen’s 1928 novella Quicksand – which was inspired by Larsen’s own background and life – tells the story of a young mixed-race woman searching for her place in society, lacking a sense of identity in a highly segregated world. In Passing (1929), Larsen takes these themes a step further by exploring the emotional, moral and societal implications of the act of ‘passing’, whereby a light-skinned mixed-race woman passes as white in a society divided by race. Central to Passing is a fascinating yet complex relationship between two middle-class women, Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry – both of whom are black but sufficiently light-skinned to pass as white, depending on their personal attitudes and circumstances. Passing is just as much an exploration of the complexities of female friendships as it is of race, touching on themes of desire, jealousy, loyalty, betrayal, victory and victimhood along the way. A superb book, fully deserving of its status as a classic of the Harlem Renaissance. I loved Rebecca Hall’s film adaptation too, currently steaming on Netflix.

Finally, a few books that almost made the cut – all very highly recommended indeed.

  • Meeting in Positano – Goliarda Sapienza’s gorgeous novel of female friendship, set in the glamorous world of 1950s Italy.  
  • The Visitor – Maeve Brennan’s piercing novella of resentment, bitterness and the loneliness of isolation.
  • Family Happiness – Laurie Colwin’s beautifully observed story of familial obligations and our need to be loved.   
  • Tea is So Intoxicating – Mary Essex’s delightfully amusing comedy on the pettiness of village life and the failure to recognise our own limitations.
  • The Feast – Margaret Kennedy’s joyous novel, set in post-war Cornwall. Part morality tale and part family saga/social comedy, it’s an escapist delight!

All that remains is for me to wish you a very Merry Christmas and all the best for the year ahead. Let’s hope it turns out to be significantly less stressful than the last two have been…

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.

My books of the year, 2020 – part 3, short stories

As if you weren’t fed-up of seeing books-of-the-year lists by now, here I am, back again with another instalment of my own! But before we get to the books themselves, a little explanation… My original intention, with these annual round-ups, had been to post two pieces – the first on my favourite novellas and non-fiction from a year of reading and the second on my favourite novels. Nevertheless, as I was looking back at my choices earlier this week, I noticed that I had neglected to include any short stories in my final lists. Not because they weren’t good enough to make the cut – I read some truly excellent collections in 2020 – but for some reason they’d been squeezed out, mostly by other, more prominent books.

So, in an effort to redress the balance, here are my favourite short story collections from a year of reading – all highly recommended indeed. While a couple of these collections are relatively recent publications or reissues, the vast majority of the stories themselves hail from the mid-20th-century – a pattern that reflects my general reading preferences. A longing perhaps for a simpler, less manic world, despite many of the difficulties encountered by women in those less enlightened times.

As ever, I’ve summarised each book below, but you can read the full reviews by clicking on the appropriate links. Hopefully, you’ll find something of interest in the mix.

Dark Tales by Shirley Jackson

A collection of seventeen of Jackson’s stories, several of which first appeared in The New Yorker, McSweeney’s and other publications in the 1960s. As the title suggests, the tales themselves are rather creepy and unnerving, illuminating the sense of darkness that lurks beneath the veneer of suburban society. Confinement and entrapment are recurring themes, from the explicit physical state of being trapped in a room to the more subtle psychological sense of being constrained within the limits of domesticity. In some respects, Jackson was highlighting the relatively limited roles woman were allowed to play in society at the time – wife, mother, homemaker and supporter, with precious little opportunity for personal fulfilment. An excellent selection of stories with a serious message.

After Rain by William Trevor

Once again, William Trevor proves himself to be an incredibly astute chronicler of human nature. Here we have stories of bittersweet regrets and missed opportunities, of the acceptance of life’s disappointments and duties, of crushed hopes and dashed dreams. Moreover, Trevor writes brilliantly about the sense of duty or stigma that guides his protagonists’ lives. 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. What is omitted or left unsaid is just as important as what is explicitly expressed. A superb collection of stories, possibly up there with Eleven Kinds of Loneliness as an all-time favourite.

The Breaking Point by Daphne du Maurier

A characteristically unsettling collection of eight stories, many of which blur the lines between the real and the imaginary. They’re wonderfully creepy, often tapping into our deepest fears and suspicions, our latent sources of restlessness and anxiety. As the title suggests, each story pivots on a moment of crisis in an individual’s life, a time when the protagonist’s emotions are stretched to the extreme. Whether that person snaps or survives remains the critical question, something du Maurier leaves for the reader to ponder and decide. She also excels at building atmosphere and tension, a style that seems particularly well suited to the short story form.

The Cost of Living: Early and Uncollected Stories by Mavis Gallant

In short, these stories are excellent. The very best of them feel like novels in miniature; the kind of tales where everything is compressed, only for the narratives to expand in the reader’s mind on further reflection. Several of Gallant’s protagonists – typically women – seem lost; cast adrift and unmoored in the vast sea of uncertainty that is life. Here we have stories of terrible mothers and self-absorbed fathers, of isolated wives and bewildered husbands, of smart, self-reliant children who must learn to take care of themselves. Central themes include the failings of motherhood, the heartache of adolescence, the emptiness of false happiness and domesticity, and ultimately, a sense of isolation and abandonment. These are marvellous stories, beautifully observed. I loved them.

Wave Me Goodbye, Stories of the Second World War

A fascinating anthology of stories by women writers, most of whom were writing during the Second World War (or the years immediately following its end). When viewed as a whole, this collection offers a rich tapestry depicting the different facets of women’s lives during this period – from stoic mother and caregiver, to headstrong Land Girl or factory worker, to intrepid journalist or correspondent. We see individuals anxiously awaiting the return of loved ones; women grieving for lives that have been lost, and marriages that have faded or turned sour. The mood and atmosphere on the Home Front are vividly conveyed, through stories of nights in the air raid shelters and the emotional impact of the Blitz. Plus, there are glimpses of Europe too, from the ravages of war-torn France to the tensions in Romania as the conflict edges ever closer. Includes pieces by Jean Rhys, Elizabeth Taylor, Olivia Manning, Barbara Pym and many more.

The Garden Party by Katherine Mansfield

What to say about this collection of fifteen of Mansfield’s short stories, other than to highlight its brilliance? A much-anticipated garden party is tainted by news of a fatal accident, for one member of the family at least; a man longs to be alone with his wife following her return from a trip, only for their closeness to be disturbed by the shadow of a stranger; a lady’s maid remains devoted to her employer, forsaking the offer of marriage for a life in service. These are just a few of the scenarios Mansfield explores with great insight and perceptiveness. Moreover, there is a beautiful fluidity of emotion in these stories, as they move seamlessly from happiness and gaiety to sadness and loneliness in the blink of an eye.

Saturday Lunch at the Brownings by Penelope Mortimer

Mortimer drew on some of her own experiences for this collection of sharply unnerving stories of motherhood, marriage and family relation – many of which uncover the horrors that lie beneath the veneer of domestic life. There are similarities with the Shirley Jackson and the Daphne du Maurier, particularly in the opening story, The Skylight, where much of the horror in this chillingly tense tale stems from the imagination. There is a strong sense of foreboding in many of these stories, a feeling that flashes of rage, violence or cruelty may erupt at any moment. Nevertheless, Mortimer also has a sharp eye for humour, something that comes through quite strongly. In summary, these are pitch-perfect vignettes, subverting traditional images of marriage and motherhood with a spiky precision.

So that’s it from me for 2020. I wish you all the very best for 2021, wherever you happen to be.

My books of the year, 2020 – part 2, the novels

Last week, I published part 1 of my favourite reads of 2020, a post focussing on novellas and non-fiction. (If you missed it, you can find it here.)

Today, I’m back with part 2, my favourite novels from a year of reading. My reading has been somewhat erratic in 2020, following the ebb and flow of the lockdown-release cycle we’ve been navigating this year. Nevertheless, I have managed to read some truly excellent books. So, without further ado, these are the novels I loved, the books that have stayed with me, the ones I’m most likely to recommend to others. As ever, I’ve summarised each one below, but you can read the full reviews by clicking on the appropriate links.

Business as Usual by Jane Oliver and Ann Stafford

This is such a charming book, a wonderful novel in which a young woman, Hilary Fane, sets out on her own, hoping to find her way in the world of work before getting married. The story is told through a series of letters – mostly from Hilary to her parents and fiancé – coupled with the occasional interdepartmental memo from the London department store where she works. In short, the letters chart Hilary’s progress in London, the highs and lows of working life and the practicalities of surviving on a meagre wage. What comes through so strongly here is the narrative voice, revealing Hilary to be bright, realistic, witty and self-deprecating; in other words, she is an absolute joy. If you loved Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day or The Diary of a Provincial Lady, chances are you’ll enjoy this.

The Skin Chairs by Barbara Comyns

The novels of Barbara Comyns continue to be a source of fascination for me, characterised as they are by her unique world view, a surreal blend of the macabre and the mundane. The Skin Chairs is a magical novel in which a bright, curious girl must navigate some of the challenges of adolescence. It is by turns funny, eerie, poignant and bewitching. What Comyns captures so well here is how children can often be excellent intuitive judges of character without fully understanding the complexities or underlying motivations at play. A spellbinding read, one that reminds me a little of Angela Carter’s The Magic Toyshop and Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. I can’t recommend it more highly than that!

A Wreath of Roses by Elizabeth Taylor

Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with my love of Elizabeth Taylor’s fiction, the perfectly executed stories of human nature, the small-scale dramas of domestic life, typically characterised by careful observation and insight. First published in 1949, A Wreath of Roses is one of Taylor’s earliest novels – and quite possibly her darkest too with its exploration of fear, loneliness, mortality and lies. It also features one of the most striking openings in literature, a genuinely unnerving scene that sets a sinister tone right from the start. A Wreath of Roses is right up there with Mrs Palfrey and The Soul of Kindness for me, top-tier Taylor for sure.

The Bottle Factory Outing by Beryl Bainbridge

The centrepiece of this somewhat surreal novel, which takes place in the 1970s, is a staff outing for the employees of a wine-bottling factory. Observing this ill-fated trip feels somewhat akin to watching a slow-motion car crash, with the reader powerless to divert their attention as the horror unfolds. The tone is darkly comic and farcical, a little like a cross between Willy Russell’s play Our Day Out and Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party – maybe with a touch of Nuts in May thrown in for good measure. In essence, this is an excellent, well-crafted tragi-comedy, shot through with Bainbridge’s characteristically acute insight into human nature. It is the juxtaposition between the ordinary and the absurd that makes this such an unsettling yet compelling read.

The Balkan Trilogy by Olivia Manning

How to do justice to such a deeply rewarding series of novels in just a few sentences? It’s nigh on impossible. All I can do is to urge you to read these books for yourself if you haven’t done so already. Ostensibly a portrait of a complex marriage unfolding against the backdrop of the looming threat of war, this largely autobiographical series is rich is detail and authenticity, perfectly capturing the tensions and uncertainties that war creates. As ever, Manning excels at creating flawed and nuanced characters that feel thoroughly believable. A transportive read with a particularly vivid sense of place.

The Offing by Benjamin Myers

Set in the summer of 1946, just after the end of the Second World War, The Offing tells the story of an unlikely friendship that develops between two very different individuals, both of whom experience a kind of transformation as a result. In writing this novel, Myers has given us such a gorgeous, compassionate book, one that demonstrates the power of human connection in a damaged world. Alongside its themes of hope, individualism and recovery, this lyrical novel is an evocative paean to the natural world. Fans of A Month in the Country and The Go-Between will likely enjoy this.

The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (tr. Archibald Colquhoun)

A beautiful, elegiac novel set in 19th century Sicily, a time when the principality was caught in a period of significant change, one ushered in by the Risorgimento, or unification of Italy. It’s a novel that highlights the need for us to adapt if we want certain aspects of our lives to remain the same. The language is especially gorgeous here – sensual, evocative and ornate, frequently tinged with an aching sense of sadness for a vanishing world. Another transportive read, albeit one with an undeniable sense of melancholy.

The Weather in the Streets by Rosamond Lehmann

A sequel to Lehmann’s earlier novel, Invitation to the Waltz, in which seventeen-year-old Olivia Curtis is captivated at her first society ball by the dashing Rollo Spencer. Ten years later, a chance encounter brings Olivia back into contact with Rollo, sparking a rush of conflicting emotions – more specifically, the desire to open up vs the tendency towards self-protection. This remarkable book expertly captures the cruelty, frustration and devastation of a doomed love affair in the most glittering prose. The modernity of Lehmann’s approach, with its passages of stream-of-consciousness and fluid style, makes the novel feel fresh and alive, well ahead of its time for the mid-1930s.

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 an excellent book, one that veers between the darkly comic, the deeply tragic and the downright unnerving. What Trevor does so well here is to expose the darkness and sadness that lurks beneath the veneer of respectable society. 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 the travelling fair for the summer season. One for Muriel Spark fans, particularly those with a fondness for The Ballad of Peckham Rye.

Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner

As this brilliant novel opens, Edith Hope – an unmarried writer of romantic fiction – has just been packed off by her respectable, interfering friends to the Hotel du Lac, a rather austere hotel of high repute in the Swiss countryside. Right from the start, it is clear that Edith has been banished from her sector of society, sent away to reflect on her misdemeanours, to become herself again following some undisclosed scandal. (The reason for this exile is eventually revealed, but not until the last third of the book.) Central to the novel is Edith and her consideration of the kind of life she can carve out for herself. It’s a truly excellent book, one that throws up so many questions and points for debate – especially on the options open to women in the 1970s/’80s and how these have changed. My third reading of this book, and at last I feel that I’ve *got* it.

The Caravaners by Elizabeth von Arnim

The Caravaners is a satire of the highest order, not least because the novel’s narrator – the German baron, Otto von Ottringel – is a colossal ass; a pompous, insufferable individual with absolutely no self-awareness. The novel focuses on a caravanning holiday through the countryside of Kent, ostensibly to mark Otto’s silver wedding anniversary. What von Arnim does so well here is to let the reader see how Otto is perceived by those around him, even though the novel is narrated entirely through the baron’s own eyes. In short, this is a brilliantly-written book, one that casts a sharply satirical eye over such subjects as misogyny, class differences, power dynamics in marriage and Anglo-German relations during the early 20th century – not to mention the delights and follies of caravanning in the inclement British weather.

Mr Wilder and Me by Jonathan Coe

I have long had a fondness for the work of Billy Wilder, the Austrian-born American filmmaker who moved to Hollywood in the early 1930s. The Apartment (1961) is my all-time favourite film – I watch it at least once a year, often on New Year’s Eve – while Double Indemnity (1945) and Some Like It Hot (1960) would almost certainly make my top ten. So, a novelisation of Wilder’s quest to make his 1978 movie, Fedora was always going to be literary catnip for me. This is a wonderfully charming, warm-hearted book – at once a gentle coming-of-age story and an affectionate portrayal of one of Hollywood’s greatest directors – a compassionate, bittersweet novel about ageing, creativity and what happens when an industry changes, leaving a respected artist somewhat high and dry.

So there we have it, my favourite novels from a year of reading. All that remains is for me to wish you a very Merry Christmas and all the best for the year ahead; let’s hope it turns out to be significantly less stressful than 2020…

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.

After Rain by William Trevor

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 Love Department by William Trevor

I’ve been on a bit of William Trevor kick over the past few years, starting with his early novels, The Boarding-House (1965) and The Old Boys (1964), both excellent; then moving on to his final novel, Love and Summer (2009), a book I absolutely adored. The Love Department (1966) is another of Trevor’s early works, and while I didn’t find it quite as satisfying as the others, there’s still a great deal to enjoy here.

Like its predecessors, The Love Department is something of an ensemble piece, set in England in the mid-1960s. The central character is Edward Blakeston-Smith, a rather innocent young man who has just left a monastic retreat after a period of recuperation for a nervous condition. In his eagerness to prove he is no longer a child, Edward applies for a job with the ‘love department’, a hugely popular agony aunt service run by a leading newspaper based in London. Heading up the service is Lady Dolores Bourhardie, an eccentric figure who believes in the preservation of love within marriage, largely irrespective of a woman’s dissatisfaction with her husband.

Following a brief yet unsuccessful trial in the love department office, Edward is enlisted to perform a special mission in the field. He is to track down Septimus Tuam, an infamous trickster who has been stirring up trouble in the suburbs of Wimbledon, preying on vulnerable ladies with the ultimate aim of tapping them up for money. In short, Edward must find this enemy of love, follow him as he goes about his business and report back in full to Lady Dolores, preferably with a comprehensive dossier of Tuam’s targets and movements. At first Edward is rather reluctant to take on this mission, preferring the relative safety of the office to life in the wild; however, needs must when the devil drives, so he sets off with the aim of finding his prey.

As the narrative unfolds, we gain an insight into Tuam’s modus operandi, a technique which usually involves the ‘accidental’ laddering of a woman’s stocking with the tip of his umbrella. In this scene, Tuam – a rather attractive young man – is in the midst of setting up a potential victim, a smartly-dressed young woman whom he spots in a café. When Tuam offers to buy the lady a new pair of stockings, his target is rather reluctant to accept…

‘My dear, we cannot say goodbye like this. I have utterly ruined your beautiful stocking. I do insist, I really do, that you step across the road to Ely’s and see what they have for sale. I’m well known in the store.’ Septimus Tuam had taken the liberty of seizing the woman’s elbow, while she, feeling herself propelled from the café and on to the street, was thinking that a hatchet-faced young man whom she had never seen before had paid for her coffee and was now about to buy her stockings.

‘I must ask you to release me,’ she said. ‘Let go my elbow: I do not intend to go with you to Ely’s.’

‘Oh, come now.’

‘Please. You are greatly embarrassing me.’

‘Nonsense, my dear. My name is Septimus Tuam. And may I be so bold –’

‘Excuse me,’ said the woman to two men on the street. ‘I am being annoyed.’

The men turned on Septimus Tuam and spoke roughly, while the woman, glancing haughtily at him, strode away. He felt humbled and depressed and then felt angry. He crept away with the sound of the men’s voices echoing in his ears, hating momentarily the whole of womankind, and reflecting that his failure had cost him two and sevenpence. (pp. 28–29)

Edward’s investigations into Tuam bring him into contact with a wide range of characters, most notably Eve and James Bolsover who have been married for ten years. The Bolsovers’ marriage has eroded over time, something that Eve finds herself reflecting on as she goes about her days. While James is wrapped up in his work and the deteriorating health of his father, Eve is bored and frustrated in her role as a wife, the spark having gone out of their relationship through a gradual process of decay. As ever with Trevor, there are some poignant insights into the small tragedies of life throughout the novel, particularly in relation to the erosion of love.

Eve wondered if these wives loved their husbands now; and what the history of love had been in the marriages. She wondered if Mrs Linderfoot in Purley had woken one morning and seen that there was no love left, and had climbed on to a sofa and stayed there. She wondered if the Clingers ever spoke of love, or how Mrs Poache and the Captain viewed their wedding day. She looked across the room and saw her husband, his head bent to catch what Mrs Poache was saying. He was still a handsome man; the decay was elsewhere. (p.116)

The novel has a similar tone to Trevor’s other early works, one of black comedy – in this instance, a darkly humorous satire pitting the protectors of love within marriage against the threats to its preservation. There is a marvellous set-piece in the middle of the book when the Bolsovers host a dinner party for three of James’ work colleagues and their wives – all the men are members of the board. The Clingers turn up with their pet monkey, which is confined to a separate room. Unfortunately for the hosts, the monkey ends up attacking Mrs Hoop, the Bolsovers’ disgruntled charwoman, who milks the situation for everything she can get. To make matters worse, old Beach – Mrs Hoop’s drinking partner – turns up brandishing a broom, adding considerably to the fuss and mayhem. Even poor Edward is dragged into the fray through a bizarre coincidence, one of several in the book. (If I had a criticism, I would say that some of these seem a bit forced or contrived, more so than in Trevor’s other early novels.)

While the narrative is rather farcical at times, the individual scenes are never less than well observed. The characterisation too is excellent, from the sinister Septimus Tuam, a confidence trickster who shows no remorse at abandoning a woman who proves burdensome, to Mrs Hoop, a woman who despises her employer for her apparent lack of concern.

Trevor has a great affinity for life’s eccentrics, for people on the fringes of society, expertly capturing the pain and loneliness of an existence on the margins. His books are full of insights into the human condition, our hopes and dreams, our failings and foibles. Probably not the best place to start with this author, but a very diverting read nonetheless!

(I read this book for Cathy’s Reading Ireland month which is running throughout March. For another take on this novel, please see Kim’s review.)

The Love Department is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.