Love and Summer, By William Trevor

An elegy to love, loss and small-town sufferance
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The Independent Culture

This is William Trevor's first novel since 2002's The Story of Lucy Gault. Like much of his writing, it is set in rural Ireland and, also like much of his writing, it is a flawless work of art. The spare, beautiful language, meticulously judged sentences and paragraphs, the rhythms and cadences create a litany of bereavement as surely as they may describe an abandoned garden or the final packing of a suitcase. And Trevor accords the same respectful impartiality to his characters, dignifying the smallest rituals of their daily lives, the stuff of things.

The time is the late 1950s. A sultry summer unravels through a dusty small town and its surrounding hills, strewn with rocks and gorse. Much goes on in people's heads and hearts, but externally there is little change, so the inhabitants may say with modest complacency that in Rathmoyne, nothing happens. For it is all too late. The tentacular shadows of the past enclose endeavour and aspiration.

No one is much concerned with the future. Florian, in his twenties and planning departure forever, imagines the rest of his life passed in obscurity, a single room in a far country, where he will be alone, reading and remembering. He has dabbled in painting, writing, photography, and not found a way. "And did it matter, now that so much was over for him, and his disappointment's sting had long been drawn?" He is selling his childhood home, a large, decaying house; he thinks of his loving parents in their graves; he dreams of his absent cousin Isabella, a piano playing Schubert, a heron. And he encounters Ellie, the childless wife of a hill farmer, neither happy nor unhappy in a marriage of mutual kindness. As a foundling, she is glad to have her place in life, her appointed tasks and her decent, hard-working husband: "He wasn't sentimental, but he respected sheep." He is also silently consumed by the grief and guilt of a terrible accident of years before.

Florian is attracted to Ellie and the gentlest of summer dalliances, but Ellie's susceptible heart leaps to the inkling of high romance. Her bicycle and her parcels of shopping are made numinous by his presence. Her quiet evenings at the farm are fractured now with guilt and terror. She and Florian meet in secret places, a graveyard, a lost garden. Florian reads Dostoevsky as he waits for her.

Small joys and cruelties abound and although the prevailing mood is elegiac, there are moments of wild wit. While Florian and Ellie are the central figures, other tragedies are revealed and other intensely realised characters pursue their bitter pleasures. One or two actually lead lives of modest content, in a numb sort of way, and you want to keep them safe.

Ellie, rightly, is given the raison d'être of it all: "The past he talked about himself became another part of her... Being with him in the woods at Lyre, where the air was cold and the trees imposed a gloomy darkness, or walking among the monks' graves, or being with him anywhere, telling or listening, was for Ellie more than friendship or living had ever been before." This is the miraculous essence, the consummate artistry, the telling of it.