Visions from a speeding car
William Trevor's stories offer domestic nightmares stifled by good manners. Clare Boylan reports
Saturday 28 September 1996
When 16-year-old Milton Leeson has a vision of a saint at his family's farm in Armagh, it unleashes an unholy chain of consequence. Is the boy "away in the head", like his two brothers (one a UVF terrorist, the other a victim of Down's Syndrome)? It is scarcely relevant, for Milton is a Protestant, the son of a stalwart loyalist family who view this popish excess as a disease at the very heart of their values. The small, eccentric episode brews up into a chapter of monumental horror which forever after must be contained and guarded within the family. In typical Trevor style, the saint is not even a radiant or consoling vision, but a lean-faced woman with wasted features and lips dry as a bone. "Milton had the distinct impression that the woman wasn't alive."
With his ninth short story collection, William Trevor shows himself as a master of domestic horror. In his fictional world, the anguished cry of the dispossessed comes out as a suffocated sigh, as in a nightmare. Emotions are stifled by manners, terror parcelled up in platitudes. The settings for his tales are homely ones, cosy with flagged kitchens or Formica counters. But home is not a safe place. Behind closed doors, people live lives of quiet happiness or despair, and within their own walls unspeakable horrors scuttle around. In "Gilbert's Mother" a woman lives with the growing certainty that her secretive son is a vicious criminal. Is he a rapist and murderer or merely an ineffectual creep terrorising his only victim? "She had felt the tug of his lips on her breasts, a helpless creature then, growing into the one who controlled her, who made her isolation total." "Timothy's Birthday" brings a visit from the rough-trade boyfriend of their only son to a devoted elderly couple in a decaying Irish country house. With true Trevor subtlety, it is not the low-life youth who is sinister; he is just a harmless petty delinquent who becomes the uneasy observer of the ruin he has brought to two innocent people. The nemesis is the gay son, poisonously resentful of his parents' excluding love for one another.
Not all are horror tales. Some are almost-love stories, poignant studies of stifled lives briefly lit by gleams of affection. "The Potato Dealer" tells of an arranged marriage between a pregnant girl and a dealer with "eyes that were small and sharp as splinters". It is a bleak bargain, paid for by the girl's uncle, without sentiment or any sexual content. When the mercenary husband is surprised by pleasure in the child that is born, he stows this happiness furtively and then watches helplessly as it is snatched away. "The Piano Tuner's Wives", tells of a blind man whose world was warmly coloured by an amiable first wife and then vandalised by a jealous successor.
Trevor is a skilled purveyor of quiet menace. No purple prose pumps up the sense of dread in "Lost Ground", the gem of this collection, and the longest of the stories. There is no melodrama, only a deadening sense of reflected dread in the almost-sprightly account of a loyalist march on a Catholic area. "As the marchers melodiously advanced upon the blank stare of so many windows, the stride of the men acquired an extra fervour."
No diamond comes without flaws. Trevor is ill-at-ease with the street language of the young. Words like "mega", and "naff" fall slightly off- centre. Least successful are the gentler stories, in which the author's admirably controlled prose sometimes lacks exactitude and has a faded quality, like an exquisite garment washed too often. In the title story, a woman on holiday in Italy to recover from a broken love affair, has a moment of revelation which brings understanding and consolation. But the moment of light lacks the clarity to strike at the heart of the reader. "A Friendship" fails to justify the success of the revenge exacted by a a pernickety husband on his unfaithful wife and her colourful girlfriend. This is tricky Jane Austen territory and the outcome of the story really hangs on power, and not love, as the author asserts. In "A Day", a woman drinks her way from despair to optimism with the fantasy that her husband's infidelity will bring a child, which she will adopt. This has strong echoes of the masterful "Access to the Children", (from an early collection) in which a divorced man, drink-sodden and shambolic, imagines that each access day will reunite the happy family that once was his. But the new story lacks the force and focus of the earlier one, lapsing into unconscious comedy as the sozzled wife tries to assemble dinner.
Overall, these interludes come as a respite more than a disappointment. Trevor is a consummately elegant writer whose dialogue distils pure truth from prevarication and whose amiable prose snaps like a trap upon the mind of the lulled reader, leaving you like someone witnessing, from a speeding car, awful events that will stay with you forever.
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