After Rain by William Trevor
In the title story to this impressive collection, Harriet, ensconced in the Pensione Cesarina after a love affair is finished, is just thirty years old and lonely.
Loneliness is a condition that many of Trevor’s characters endure and he is a master at finding the right rhythms and tones to portray their inner lives. This is true of his novels, but probably more so of his many short stories.
The Potato Dealer, one of the excellent stories here, opens like this:
Mulreavy would marry her if they paid him, Ellie’s uncle said: she couldn’t bring a fatherless child into the world. He didn’t care what was done nowadays; he didn’t care what the fashion was; he wouldn’t tolerate the talk there’d be. ‘Mulreavy,’ her uncle repeated. ‘D’you know who I mean by Mulreavy?’
She hardly did. An image came into her mind of a big face that had a squareness about it, and black hair, and a cigarette butt adhering to the lower lip while a slow voice agreed or disagreed and eyes that were small and sharp as splinters. Mulreavy was a potato dealer. Once a year he came to the farm, his old lorry rattling into the yard, then backed up to where the sacks stood ready for him. Sometimes he shook his head when he examined the potatoes, saying they were too small. He tried that on, Ellie’s uncle maintained. Cagey, her uncle said.
‘I’ll tell you one thing, girl,’ her uncle said when she found the strength to protest at what was being proposed. ‘I’ll tell you this: you can’t stay here without there’s something along lines like I’m saying. Nowadays is nothing, girl. There’s still the talk.’
He was known locally as Mr Larrissey, rarely by his Christian name, which was Joseph. Ellie didn’t call him ‘Uncle Joseph’, never had; ‘uncle’ sometimes, though not often, for even in that there seemed to be an intimacy that did not belong in their relationship. She thought of him as Mr Larrissey.
‘It’s one thing or the other, girl.’
Her mother – her uncle’s sister – didn’t say anything. Her mother hadn’t opened her mouth on the subject of Mulreay, but Ellie knew that she shared the sentiments that were being expressed, and would accept, in time, the solution that had been offered. She had let her mother down; she had embittered her; why should her mother care what happened now? All of it was a mess. In the kitchen of the farmhouse her mother and her uncle were thinking the same thing.
Her uncle – a worn, tired man, not used to trouble like this – didn’t forgive here and never would: so he had said, and Ellie knew it was true. Since the death of her father she and her mother had lived with him on the farm on sufferance: that was always in his eyes, even though her mother did all the cooking and the cleaning of the house, even though Ellie, since she was eleven, had helped in summer in the fields, had collected and washed the eggs and nourished the pigs. Her uncle had never married; and if she and her mother hadn’t moved on to the farm in 1978, when Ellie was five, he’d still be on his own, managing as best he could.
‘You have the choice, girl,’ he said now, repetition heavy in the farmhouse kitchen. He was set in his ways, Ellie’s mother often said; lifelong bachelors sometimes were.
In other stories a childless wife is devastated after discovering her husband’s long-term affair; parents of an adult daughter are undermined after the return of a rakish friend who their daughter promised she would marry as a child. And politics are also given an airing in the form of Ireland’s troubles: in Lost Ground, the longest piece here, we witness a young protestant boy’s death after his family fail to come to terms with his vision of a catholic saint.
Trevor has often been compared with Chekhov, but there is actually little evidence for this apart from the fact that both wrote short stories and both were masterful craftsmen and wordsmiths. Chekhov abandoned plot and fashioned the narratives of his stories like life: meaningless, random, inconclusive, often cruel. He refuses to judge or explain, he won’t celebrate or attribute meaning. He is only interested in depicting his experience of life.
Trevor’s world is different. Invariably something happens to dislodge an uneasy and tendentious equilibrium. There follows some kind of collapse. His characters become melancholy, often damaged. But as the stories come to their conclusion, Trevor’s intelligence and heart are close to hand. We are led to an emotional plateau in which something vital, through the events depicted, has changed irrevocably.