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William Trevor, A Bit on the Side

Wow. I can't even begin to describe how thoroughly I enjoyed William Trevor's new story collection, A Bit on the Side. Trevor's prose is simply beautiful, and impeccably crafted. There's no clever wordplay here, no dizzying metaphors or whipsaw plot twists, no implausibly witty characters. Just everyday people living quiet, modest, lonely and often regretful lives in an Ireland of the modern era but which could easily have been fifty or a hundred years ago. The settings are vividly drawn--pubs which are empty in the afternoon but for the lonely seeking refuge; manor houses long since past their prime, their grounds and their inhabitants' way of life slowly drifting away; destitute farmhouses and those fighting to survive within them.

My favorite story here is "Graillis' Legacy" in which a small-town librarian and widower is faced with an inheritance which has been bequeathed to him by a woman he once knew, back when his wife was still alive. The woman moved away years ago, and few people in town probably even remember her, but he wants to refuse the inheritance none the less, merely out of propriety, fearing what others might think, what they would assume to be the ill-gotten fruits of an illicit affair. He goes so far as to consult an attorney, or solicitor, to weigh his options.

He was bewildered by the resurrection of a guilt that long ago had softened away to nothing. In that other time no pain had been caused, no hurt; he had managed the distortions that created falsity, the lies of silence; what he had been forgiven for was not seeming to be himself for a while. A crudity still remained in the solicitor's reading of the loose ends that were still there; the wronged wife haunting restlessly from her grave, the older woman claiming from hers the lover who had slipped away from her.

Despite the writer's use of the word "lover", it's not clear if a sexual relationship ever existed between Graillis and the older woman. (Trevor leaves it left unsaid, a lovely habit of his which keeps the reader highly involved in his stories.) Instead, their relationship appeared to be platonic, with the two likely sharing no more than a love of books and conversation, indulged over coffee and cigarettes in the drawing-room of her decaying mansion.

He stubbed out his second cigarette. He never smoked at home, continuing not to after he'd found himself alone there, and smoking was forbidden in the branch library, a restriction he insisted upon himself. But in the drawing-room he had sat in so often in the autumn of 1979 and the winter and spring that followed it, a friendship had developed over cigarettes, touches of lipstick on the cork tips that had accumulated in the ashtray with the goldfinch on it. That settled in his thoughts, still as a photograph, arrested with a clarity that today felt cruel.

Usually when I finish a story collection and look back at the table of contents, I have to wrack my brain while looking at some of the titles, trying to think of what happened in each story. This was not the case with Trevor's book: each story immediately came to mind upon reading the corresponding title, standing out distinctly and unmistakably.

A Bit on the Side is a wonderful and richly written collection of stories. I give it my highest and unreserved recommendation.

(Passages are copyright of William Trevor and Penguin Books Ltd., 2004.)

January 19, 2005 in Books | Permalink