Summary (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
Although about half of Irish writer William Trevor's more than forty books are novels, Trevor is at his best in his carefully honed, deeply nuanced short stories. Indeed, he has been critically acclaimed as the finest writer of short fiction alive in the English-speaking world. A Bit on the Side solidifies the writer's reputation. The twelve stories contained here demonstrate Trevor's mastery of his craft. The prose is taut yet poetic, finely wrought yet compassionate.
Trevor's stories are all set in either Ireland or England, in both rural locations and large cities. For the most part, the time is modern, with the lovely exceptions of “Solitudes” and “The Dancing-Master's Music.” The settings reveal themselves not only in the description of streets, or towns, or hills, but also in the cadences of the characters’ speech and in the narrative voices that structure the stories. The boarding-school boys of “Traditions,” for example, speak with the tones of the upper classes, while the villagers in “Big Buck” are distinctly Irish: “’A thing I’ll put to you,’ John Michael's uncle was saying now, ’is the consideration of the farm.’”
In addition, Trevor's control over tone is deft and sure. In the story “Solitudes,” for example, he creates a sense of utter loneliness and isolation through the point of view, images, and setting. “Solitudes” is the story of a woman whose life has been irreparably changed by an event in her childhood. Trevor uses the first-person point of view, the only story in the book so structured. By choosing the first-person voice, Trevor emphasizes the isolation of the narrator. All the events of the story, beginning when she is a solitary child who plays with imaginary friends, filter through the narrator's memory and consciousness. She relates them in present-tense vignettes, and it is not until late in the story that the reader realizes she is now an old woman, recalling these moments of her life in flashback. Thus, while the structure is chronological, each of the vignettes is isolated from the others, the moments like separate pearls on a necklace held together by the thread of memory.
The story opens when the narrator is seven years old, the only child of an Egyptologist and his wife, people of the leisured class who are able to live in a large house with servants in London and support the father's extended trips to the Pyramids. The year is 1903, and at some time in the recent past, the narrator has inadvertently (and unbeknownst to her mother) witnessed her mother's infidelity while her husband was out of the country. On the narrator's father's return, the couple holds a party, and the mother's “friend” attends. As the friend drunkenly climbs the stairs toward the narrator, he falls to his death.
The narrator does not reveal much about the event, except that she touches his arm before he falls. There is some sense, however, that the narrator has caused the man's death, and her parents arrive at an arrangement with the servants who have witnessed the moment. In a gesture of utter devotion, and perhaps remorse, the parents take the child to Europe with them, and for the rest of their lives they live in hotels, moving with the seasons from place to place, seeking anonymity, protecting their daughter from the events they themselves have engendered.
Trevor is particularly elliptical in this story; indeed, much of the information the reader gathers is gleaned from what is not said. Again, the first-person voice allows for a veil to be dropped over crucial moments and all emotional responses to events. The ellipses reflect not only the narrator's reserve but also the reserve of her social class. These are people who do not speak of important matters such as infidelity and death; rather, their conversation is limited to that of clothing, or meals, or hotels. Thus, while the images are striking and clearly drawn, they create a sort of still life painting, rather than a cinematic narration.
Her parents dead of old age, the narrator realizes that she “did not know them at all.” Ironically, finally understanding the terrible truth of her childhood, she finds that no one wants to listen: “Each time I found my listener, each time across a teashop table or in a park, there was politeness; and moments later there was revulsion…. In my foolishness I did not know what I since have learnt: that the truth …is hard to peddle if there is something terrible to tell as well.”
In the end, the woman lives alone, a relic from the past herself, in a European hotel that has seen much better days. It seems at the last moment, however, that she has found some surcease from her pain in the form of an Englishman who approaches her on the beach....
(The entire section is 1937 words.)
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