September 28, 2009
William Trevor: Love and Summer
I’ve never understood the high praise which seems to greet each new book by William Trevor. Having read a couple of collections of his stories, and three longer works (My House in Umbria, Felicia’s Journey, The Story of Lucy Gault), I’ve thought of him as an efficient sketcher of lives of quiet desperation, but otherwise – well, otherwise I haven’t thought of him much. Nonetheless I am wildly susceptible to hype, and when his Booker-longlisted novel Love and Summer was published to critical delight, I thought I might like to read it after all. This feeling was galvanized when I saw Eileen Battersby, Literary Correspondent of the Irish Times, enter an hysteria of grief over its omission from the shortlist. In a short article, she laments the loss no fewer than eight times. (She also gets wrong the name of Hilary Mantel’s last novel as well as the number of novels Mantel has published, and mistakenly calls The Quickening Maze Adam Foulds’ fiction debut. Grief does funny things to people.)
Love and Summer is set in the fictional Irish town of Rathmoye around the late 1950s. It depicts a tiny ripple or flaw in the fabric of an otherwise eventless summer.
Compact and ordinary, it was a town in a hollow that had grown up there for no reason that anyone knew or wondered about. … Nothing happened in Rathmoye, its people said, but most of them went on living there.
In fact, “that nothing happened was an exaggeration.” The book shows that things have been happening to people, even if not spoken about, for decades: and they will go on happening. As the book begins, Mrs Connulty, the matriarch of a family central to life in Rathmoye, has died. The late Mrs Connulty “had been disappointed in her husband and her daughter,” and even her beloved son, Joseph Paul, did not achieve his ambition to become a priest. “The vocation slipped away from him, lost beneath the weight of his mother’s doubt that he would make a success of the religious life. In the end her doubt became his own.” His sister, whom we know only as ‘Miss Connulty’, is buttoned-up, for reasons initially unspecified (“She had been young when the trouble happened. She hadn’t let herself go when it was over. She hadn’t since”).
The Connultys are not the only family haunted by the past. Dillihan, the farmer, is crippled with guilt and shame over the death of his wife and child many years ago (“on Sundays he went to early Mass because it was less crowded”), but has since remarried, to Ellie, a girl introduced as a housekeeper: “We’ll try her so,” he said to his sisters. Ellie, for her part, felt “it was a kindness when she had been offered marriage; it would have been unkind on her part if she’d said no.” But she is young and perhaps with unacknowledged ambitions of a life greater than Rathmoye can offer, and feels with a special heaviness the weight of its stagnant days:
She sat in the yard in one of the kitchen chairs, with her tea and the Nenagh News. A pickaxe had been found in the boot of a car when its driver was arrested, declared drunk. Ore had been discovered near Toomyvara; Killeen’s Pride had won twice at Ballingarry. Top prices were being paid for ewes.
This seemingly gentle depiction or rural life even affords a moment of comedy – more against the reader’s expectations than the town’s way of life – when after the funeral, Ellie can’t go back to the Connulty house because “the artificial-insemination man was expected and she’d said she’d be there.” It is Ellie who notices a stranger in the town during Mrs Connulty’s funeral. He is Florian Kilderry, from nearby Castledrummond. Half-Italian, with artist parents (both dead), he’s an exotic bird in Rathmoye, cycling around the town taking photographs.
Much more than that would reveal the heart of the story, though the central connection is not difficult to guess. So it is, as expected, to some extent a story of quiet desperation, as Florian, “in spite of tenderness, in spite of affection for a girl he hardly knew, […] made a hell for her.” But it is full of lovely things, fleeting moments such as the sequence of thoughts about Florian which distract Ellie from her conversation, and a series of intercut scenes where Connulty brother and sister work through their own reflections on Miss Connulty’s determination to come between Florian and Ellie. It would be nice to say that this is because her mother has just died, and grief does funny things to people, but this hunger in Miss Connulty is a sort of vicarious revenge for what was done to her in her youth: “the time for pain was over, yet her wish was that it should not be, that there should always be something left – a wince, a tremor, some part of her anger that was not satisfied.”
As a tale of how the past and future unfold from the present, and how each affects the other, it could be predictable – to some extent, is – but the slightness is appropriate to the subject matter of high emotions played out in a low-key style, and of unspoken memories. A weak link is the character of Orpen Wren, an elderly man with a dementia-type condition, who circuits the town seeking answers and getting nowhere (“it can’t be much of a joke,” says one of the townspeople of him, “your memory turned inside-out for you”). His primary purpose as a character seems to be providing a sitcom-style moment of anticipation and bathos, when his confused words strike Dillahan with horror. However he does remind us that memories turned inside-out might be less troublesome than those which are so strong and true, that they continue to cause pain and problems for decades to come.