Books: Fiction in brief

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The Independent Culture
Death in Summer by William Trevor, Viking pounds 15.99. There have been 31 births and 19 deaths in Thaddeus Davenant's house, and now there are to be more - more momentous events which emphasise the fragility and transitory nature of life. But the house itself and its surrounding cherry trees remain resolute: dignified, strong, able to withstand the storms which can rock the less sturdy to their foundations.

At first, there is little sign of the turbulence that is to come. Thaddeus, in one of those twists of fate that can befall the most unlikely of people, meets Letitia on a train and makes her his wife. Until then Thaddeus had been a man who knew solitude and did not fear it, but Letititia and her money hold out the promise of an assured future. Another twist of fate, and the summer turns to ashes: Letitia dies, the first of three deaths that season, cleaving open the life of the house and changing all those within it. Death and the sentiment it trails are all about us, like woodsmoke lingering in the air from an August bonfire.

Thaddeus and his upstanding citizen of a mother-in-law reveal themselves, in Trevor's prose, to be flawed, secretive creatures. But in Trevorland, that lonely, melancholy landscape in which we devoted readers feel so at home, there are others, far more battered and rejected by society, outside its conventional norms. There is Maidment, the eavesdropping, prying butler with a penchant for the horses; there is the blowzy Dot, pining for Thaddeus and memories of long gone days in hotel rooms; and there are Albert and Pettie, unlikely products of a children's home,with equally unlikely names.

All are immersed within their longings for others which will never be reciprocated, yet they cannot somehow conceive of this terrible truth. Instead for them, as Trevor so convincingly says: "Mystery in a person is attractive: more often than not it is its presence that inspires the helpless, tumbling decent into love."

Death in Summer is a veteran Trevor novel, with its lucid, spare prose, its air of menace and its social acuity. There is extraordinary sympathy here for people of such very different worlds, which clash with vertiginous results.

This is a story, above of all, of those who watch and wait. Thaddeus and his bride waited, and found one another. Maidment spies, and his wife waits for God to answer her prayers. Mrs Iveson, the mother in law, fails to watch and Pettie, biding her time, as she waits, snatches her moment with terrible consequences. And Albert, a cleaner for the London Underground, watches, waits and listens to bring them all out of the darkness again.

Yet for those of us who have waited, since Felicia's Journey, for that prize of the late summer, a new William Trevor novel, there is a tinge of disappointment. Trevor, in the autumn of his life, has lost something of the sprightliness of prose and plot which have marked earlier works. Yet even a flawed work by the master surpasses the offerings of most writers.