A Bit on the Side Summary
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. Finally, she seems able to tell her story and receive something like absolution. However, at the end of the story, the epiphany is the reader's, not the narrator's: The kindly English Mr. Amberly, like the narrator's imaginary friends long ago, exists only in her mind.
Tone plays an important role in another of the stories, “On the Streets.” Here, however, the atmosphere is slightly sinister and foreboding. In this story, the main character is named Arthurs, a waiter in a fancy restaurant. In a crucial moment in the past, he has lost his job as a lunch and dinner waiter and has been demoted to a breakfast waiter, the result of loud complaints from a couple having lunch. Trevor draws the character of Arthurs slowly, will small details adding to the portrait of a man not only down on his luck but also in whom something has become unhinged.
Arthurs travels the streets at night, moving from one public house and greasy restaurant to the next, trying to insinuate himself into the lives of strangers. In the first scene, he becomes overly familiar with an elderly waitress: “Again anxiety invaded the woman's eyes. She passed the tip of her tongue over her lips and wiped away the coating of saliva it left. Silent, she stumped off.” Scenes such as these increase the reader's anxiety as well.
This is also the story of Cheryl, a widow who was briefly married to Arthurs. At first, the reader is drawn to Cheryl in sympathy; she has, after all, been taken in by Arthurs in a particularly vulnerable moment after her husband's death. After their divorce, Arthurs continues to stalk Cheryl, showing up in the dark, following her: “She had never told him what her hours at the Warkelys’ were but he knew. He knew where the cleaning work was, he knew which Costcutter it was.” Again, such details add to the threatening tone of the story.
When the narration reveals that Arthurs knows the address of the couple who has caused him so much grief, and that Arthurs regularly visits this house, the reader is prepared for the worst. Thus it is no surprise when Arthurs insists on telling Cheryl how he has murdered the couple at last. Yet the story is much more complex than this. In the final scene, as Cheryl sits with her former husband in a dingy café, listening to his confession, the reader realizes that the murders have never happened. Cheryl understands that Arthurs is a damaged human being. However, she also knows that there is something in “her nature that had drawn her to go for walks with him” and that “her pity was his nourishment.” Thus, although the story is a dark rendering of human passion, it is also a story of compassion and forgiveness. Cheryl, by freely choosing to be with Arthurs and listen to his ramblings, offers him a respite from his personal demons.
Ultimately, what holds the stories as a collection together, however, is Trevor's subtle exploration of love in all its strangeness and variety. This thread weaves its way through each of the stories. “Sitting with the Dead,” the opening story, while seemingly about a loveless marriage, demonstrates that even in such circumstances love surfaces. “Justina's Priest” follows the love of a young disabled woman for God and the love of her priest for her.
Two stories examine love between young people. In “Big Bucks,” Fina and John Michael plan their marriage after the death of John Michael's mother. First, however, he goes to the United States to make their fortune, promising to return in the spring for their wedding. Under the stress of distance and immigration laws, the two fall apart, with Fina realizing that it was their dream of America that held them together, not the reality of their potential life. In “Sacred Statues,” Nuala's steadfast and unwavering love for her husband, Corry, and his gift for carving religious statues leads her to offer her unborn child to her neighbor for the money they need to sustain themselves.
There is perhaps no more poignant exploration of love than in the title story, “A Bit on the Side.” This is the story of a couple engaged in an illicit affair, an affair that has extended over many years. Beginning as an office romance between two married people, the affair survives the woman's relocation to another job and her divorce from her husband. In small details, such as the man's careful handling of the woman's coat, and the regular mealtime meetings between the two, Trevor builds the picture of a relationship built on love and caring. Indeed, while the impetus for an affair might seem to be sex, there is no lust in this story, just a yearning for time together: “More than anything, more than ever before in all the time they’d been in love, she wanted to be with him, to watch him getting his ticket for the tube, to walk with him.” The lives of the two, however, are completely separate, except for those moments when they are together.
It is this yearning, nonetheless, that ironically pushes the man to end the affair. In a sadness that bespeaks great love, he tells her that he cannot bear for her to be thought of as “a bit on the side.” In a response that demonstrates her great love for him, she acts with both dignity and compassion. The way the two handle their parting, the story implies, demonstrates the value of their love for each other, a love that does not end in spite of the discontinuation of the affair:
Unspoken, understood, their rules of love had not been broken in the distress of ending what was not ended and never would be. Nothing of love had been destroyed today: they took that with them as they drew apart and walked away from one another, unaware that the future was less bleak than now it seemed, that in it there still would be the delicacy of their reticence, and they themselves as love had made them for a while.
The stories of A Bit on the Side trace lives of ordinary people who continue in the face of betrayal, obstacles, and death. The characters, as different as they are from one another, share a kind of reserve, They do not publish their grief; their passions are private and partially hidden. Deceptively simple, and deceptively easy to read, these superb stories stay with the reader long after the pages of the book are closed. The book is a treasure.
Book World 34 (October 3, 2004): 19.
Booklist 101, no. 1 (September 1, 2004): 65.
The Economist 371 (June 12, 2004): 82.
Entertainment Weekly, September 24, 2004, p. 117.
Kirkus Reviews 72, no. 17 (September 1, 2004): 835.
The New York Times Book Review 154 (September 26, 2004): 17.
Newsweek 144, no. 15 (October 11, 2004): 56.
Publishers Weekly 251, no. 33 (August 16, 2004): 40.
The Spectator 295 (May 15, 2004): 62.