IN HIS new novel, William Trevor contrives to amalgamate two familiar brands of newspaper story in one chillingly crafted thriller. This time it's less a question of reading Turgenev than the tabloid press, not the fading and faded news from Ireland but the latest from England.
When the unhappily named Felicia, a young Catholic girl from the small-town Ireland of Trevor's memory, leaves home in search of her lover who has left no address, her romantic quest turns into a hideous initiation. We learn that she's pregnant ('a dirty hooer' in her father's terms), that the Irish boyfriend doesn't work in a factory but in the British Army ('the occupying forces' to her father). Unable to find him, Felicia ends up adrift in the squalor of post-Thatcher Britain instead - in a world of squats, drug addicts, religious freaks, homelessness, casual murder.
Trevor's characteristic Irish tale of blighted romance is given a particularly grim contemporary twist, however, by her encounter with the thoroughly English Mr Hilditch, a respectable Telegraph-reading factory catering manager, who takes her under his wing. It is not long before we become uncomfortably aware that the comfortable Mr Hilditch is not what he seems. As he increasingly takes control of her life, thoughts of his past surface from what he calls 'Memory Lane'. Alone in his mother's house, he nurses a grievance about being turned down by the army, and in between consuming Fray Bentos pies, KitKats, raspberry creams and trifles, he is haunted by 'little floating snapshots of Elsie and Beth and the others'. We learn of a series of previous involvements with other rootless young women who have mysteriously disappeared.
'My eye caught gruesome headlines', says the romance-writing narrator of Trevor's previous book, My House in Umbria. Here he gives us two news stories in one: pregnant Irish girl seeking abortion meets English serial killer. Trevor's work has always combined romance and the gruesomely tragic, and whereas in Felicia he fleshes out a sketch of another small-town romantic like Mary Louise in Reading Turgenev, in Mr Hilditch he has created a frighteningly convincing portrait of a murderous sentimentalist.
But Trevor's portrait avoids obvious sensationalism. If it horrifies, it is because the violence of Hilditch the serial killer is so completely swallowed up in the blandness of Hilditch the serial consumer. We get detailed supermarket shopping lists and menus, but at no point does the book describe anything approaching a violent act. Hilditch is 'mistily aware that something may be missing', that is all. The obscenity of unspoken, unacknowledged violence reverberates throughout.
The book is written with Trevor's usual narrative grip and commitment to the small print of ordinary lives ('the dull flow of time'), but for all its residual lyricism, it leaves a sour taste. Whereas in his best work, The News from Ireland or The Silence in the Garden, the core of private grief has other, deeper cultural resonances, there's something constricted about this almost surgical exercise in pathology. The provincial realism which is Trevor's speciality founders, as Felicia does, among the brand names and post-industrial landscapes of the English Midlands.
After the reflections on reading and writing in Trevor's Two Lives, the reader is left to ponder the disquieting analogy between Mr Hilditch, voyeuristically relishing each 'excursion' into the 'background' of his doomed girls' lives, and the novelist whose fiction revolves around a series of haunting portraits of unhappy, singular women who hug the unique colours of their sadness as if it were the essence of their identity.
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