William Trevor began to write fiction in his thirties and soon became one of the most revered and prolific writers in the English language. Influenced by the popular Irish writer James Joyce and the English writer Charles Dickens—writers from the two countries in which Trevor has lived—he is known for his lyrical and psychologically rich fiction, in which a moral vision shines through with unusual clarity. With a wry and often macabre sense of humor, he develops characters who are social outsiders and eccentrics, putting them into situations in which they must make decisions that irreversibly affect their lives and the lives of others. The story is always at the heart of Trevor’s work, for he is a consummate narrator who weaves tales that capture readers in his fictional webs.
The Old Boys
The Old Boys, Trevor’s second novel, opens with the meeting of a group of “old boys,” a committee of an alumni association of an English public school that is five hundred years old. As it is a tradition of the association that members do not serve on the committee until they are very senior and that all members of the committee during a two-year term of office should have been at the school at the same time, these individuals are indeed appropriately described as “old boys.” This small group of men, all between seventy and seventy-five years old, includes Mr. Turtle, Mr. Nox, Mr. Swabey-Boyns, Mr. Jaraby, General Sanctuary, Sir George Ponders, Mr. Sold, and Mr. Cridley. United by their memories, jealousies, anecdotes, and dislikes, they are holding an important meeting to decide the next chairman of the Old Boys’ Association. The setting is contemporary London.
Mr. Jaraby wants the job. Mr. Nox does not want Jaraby to have it, and to prevent him from getting the position, he hires a detective to watch Jaraby, whom he suspects of frequenting prostitutes, and then gets a prostitute to approach Jaraby. Meanwhile the other old boys meet, talk, and reminisce. A number of events complicate the election process, including a visit that the committee makes to the school for Old Boys Day, and Turtle dies there. This death does not perturb the others, however, since they have become accustomed to the deaths of their old friends.
While the plot line of the novel is not completely unexpected—Jaraby is clearly an unpleasant character who gets what he deserves—the development of the characters is a rare accomplishment. Eccentric geriatrics, they offer Trevor the opportunity to explore old age with the skills that have become his trademarks: humor and compassion. The story is written largely in stylized dialogue, which some have criticized as artificial; however, it is consistent with the satiric tone of this novel as well as with its message about the persistence of smug, insular, superficial—and perhaps artificial—groups of old boys at every level of society and within every country.
The Children of Dynmouth
At the heart of The Children of Dynmouth is an aimless, sadistic fifteen-year-old named Timothy Gedge, a virtual orphan who wanders about the seaside town of Dynmouth trying to connect himself with other people. In his desperate quest for connections, he goes to funerals, knocks on people’s doors, and greets everyone he meets on the street. To fulfill his dream of participating in a talent show, and thus launching a career as a comic impersonator, he enlists the assistance of several people, all of whom he tries to blackmail: an aging homosexual whose marriage he almost destroys, an adulterer who has been having an affair with Timothy’s mother, and a twelve-year-old boy and his stepsister.
Timothy is unmasked at the end of the novel, and he surrenders his hope of becoming a famous comedian. He does not surrender everything, however; instead, he takes on the fantasy of being the son of a couple more attractive than his own parents.
As in other Trevor novels, the characters are the focus of The Children of Dynmouth. United in a town that is a veritable failure, they likewise share another unity: a dislike of Timothy, whose menacing omnipresence is unnerving and ominous. Although nothing is neatly resolved at the conclusion of the novel, there is the suggestion of redemption insofar as the vicar’s wife, unable to have a son, sees Timothy as that son. In his characteristic way, Trevor leaves a trail of memorable characters and unanswered questions, both developed with humor and compassion.
The title of Two Lives, which contains two novellas, seems straightforward and simple. In fact, this book does trace the lives of two women, both captives of their own lives and both attempting to find escape through literature. The first, Reading Turgenev, is a sorrowful love story about a woman trapped in Ireland; the second, My House in Umbria, is a kind of thriller about a woman trapped in Italy. Though different in style and setting, the two stories have thematic similarities, including the complexity of being human and the ways in which humanity can encourage or discourage love and life.
Mary Louise Quarry is the heroine of Reading Turgenev, which opens with the following understated description: A woman, not yet fifty-seven, slight and seeming frail, eats carefully at a table in a corner. Her slices of buttered...
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