Mrs Eckdorf in O’Neil’s Hotel by William Trevor
Reads like this:
He had bought a small plot of ground a few miles from where they lived and he had just erected on it two glass-houses in which he proposed to cultivate tomatoes for profit. He had come back one evening and asked her if she’d ever noticed tomatoes in the shops. ‘A full chip when you go by in the morning,’ he’d said, ‘and an empty one when you come home at night.’ The plot of land had been paid for out of capital left to her by her father, as had the shed he had built in the garden and the concreting in the yard. Earlier in her marriage to Mr Gregan she had once or twice protested at his way of appropriating her money, but he had pointed out that it was essential to invest money in a sensible manner rather than to purchase clothes with it, or household luxuries that would wear out quickly. He had a way of speaking about such matters over a period of several weeks, making his point after tea every evening when they sat down by the fire. ‘A garment can let you down,’ he would say. ‘A fur coat taken off the back of some misfortunate animal could be eaten by our friend Master Moth and then where’d you be? Or you’d have it stolen off your arm by some brigand when you were out walking in the Botanic Gardens. You’d be paying out good money on insurance with an expensive garment, whereas a concreted yard requires no insurance whatsoever. Once it’s down it’s in place for ever. A concreted yard is an improvement to any property.’ He would go on until it was time for the News and when the News was over he would continue. She might ask him if he’d mind not sitting by the fire in his socks in case anyone came to the door, but he usually didn’t hear when she referred to his personal habits. He never appeared to notice her anger, or her sarcasm. He went his way, but somehow she found it difficult to go hers.
O’Neil’s Hotel in Dublin has seen better days. Now there is still O’Shea, the hall porter, attended by his faithful greyhound, but he is the only remaining member of staff. The hotel’s ninety-one year old owner, Mrs Sinnott lives in an upper room, sitting by the window year after year in absolute silence. An assortment of part-time prostitutes, their pimp and various relatives and neighbours use the place for one purpose or another, each of them big on self-deception and hopelessness, but there are never any real guests.
The hotel is a closed community, a fictional window on the world, and William Trevor shows us enough of its inhabitants for us to want more, and we are privy to their failings as well as their victories, their vulnerabilities as well as their strengths.
By chance, Mrs Eckdorf, a twice divorced middle-aged woman, a photographer of sorts, hears of O’Neill’s and decides to visit. We then become witnesses as Mrs Eckdorf’s own personality disintegrates and she simultaneously internalizes and fictionalizes the inhabitants of the hotel.
This novel is a bleak statement on the human condition, concerned as it is with an alienating and alienated society. I was reminded on more than one occasion of the work of William Faulkner, and particularly of Joyce’s Dubliners.
William Trevor is a rare and skillful writer. He manages to leave you with the impression that you’ve seen and come to know, not only Dublin, or the whole of Ireland, but that you’ve met and seen the workings of humanity itself.