The way things had to be

AFTER RAIN by William Trevor, Viking pounds 16
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The first in this beautiful, moving collection of stories by a great master of the form is called "The Piano Tuner's Wives". Like all the best stories here, it is set in Ireland. The blind piano tuner is married twice, first to Violet and then in old age to the woman who always wanted to marry him, Belle. Violet was his eyes: "She conjures up" the landscape and houses and faces of his life for him, through watchful, tender details: "She described the pattern of the carpet on the single flight of stairs, the blue and white porcelain knobs of the kitchen cupboards, the front door that was never opened."

Belle, who has waited all her life to replace Violet, wants to make her claim: "She diced carrots, hoping that Violet had sliced them." In revenge for the past, she starts to alter the details that the piano tuner had been so sure of, to make him imagine an altered world. She takes the colour off the porcelain knobs and gives the carpet a different pattern. He senses what she is doing, but feels she has the right. The story is about story-telling as well as about love, jealousy and acceptance. Like the piano tuner's first wife, Trevor gives us eyes to see; and we trust his version of life.

That fine story's careful, worked-at balance between pain and understanding is the book's dominant tone. The stories are feeling and humane about the fear elderly couples have that one of them will die, about the helplessness of children in bad marriages, and about loneliness. They deal in sad revelations. An ageing husband and wife, expecting their son for his annual birthday lunch, are faced instead with the son's lover who gets drunk, steals from them and leaves them humiliated. But they know the son is taking revenge on their disappointment in him, and are able to read this horrible episode as a kind of lesson: "You had to accept what there was; no point in brooding."

In the title story, "After Rain", a woman whose parents separated and whose own love affairs are always ending, Brooknerishly alone in an Italian pensione, has a moment of illumination - like the startled Virgin in the local church's Annunciation - when she sees that "she has been the victim of herself". A country girl, married off by her family to a potato-dealer to avert the shame of having been made pregnant by a travelling priest, at last exposes the "net of compromise and acceptance and making the best of things" that "held the household together", by telling her daughter the truth; and the confession shifts the terms of the matter-of-fact arranged marriage, slightly but profoundly.

These stories look quiet, but they can be cut through with violence and cruelty. Trevor often puts his innocents in the grasp of tricksters and brutes: that is his view of the world. A widow refuses to challenge a local con-man who's pretending her dead husband hasn't paid a large bill, so as not to risk tarnishing his memory. A harmless old man, house-sitting for friends on the day of the Pope's visit to Ireland, is tied up and threatened by two young burglars. In one of the most powerful of the stories, "Lost Ground", a Loyalist family is split between the brother who thinks he has seen a vision of a Catholic saint, and wants to preach, and the brother who belongs to the Belfast gangland of Protestant paramilitaries. In this story, resignation and stoicism ("That was the way things were, the way things had to be") are seen as horrifying, not consoling. It's a mark of Trevor's subtlety and wisdom that he can make us feel so differently, in different stories, about acceptance.