Love and Summer, By William Trevor

Breaching the peace of a vanished Ireland

Reviewed,Paul Bailey
Saturday 17 September 2011 19:38

The title of William Trevor's perfectly-pitched new novel is suggestive of blazing passion - a holiday romance, perhaps. The setting is a town called Rathmoye in Co. Tipperary and the time the mid-1950s. "Nothing happened in Rathmoye, its people said, but most of them went on living there" is a typical observation in Love and Summer, which deals with dramatic and life-changing events in the calmest and steadiest prose imaginable.

The book opens with the funeral of a noted pillar of the small community, Mrs Eileen Connulty, whose family owns much of the town. Her departure to a better world brings gladness and a measure of hope to her despised middle-aged daughter, known to everyone as Miss Connulty, who can now run the superior boarding house at Number 4 The Square the way she wishes.

Miss Connulty is not the only person in Rathmoye and its environs to have had an unhappy experience. Dillahan, a farmer who lives with his much younger second wife, a convent foundling given the name Ellie, is riddled with guilt and remorse over the accidental deaths of his first wife and baby.

Both Ellie and Miss Connulty notice a dark-haired stranger taking photographs at the funeral. He is soon revealed to be Florian Kilderry, the son of an Italian mother and Irish father, who occupies a decaying stately pile, Shelhanagh, some miles away.

His parents were a devoted couple who led a bohemian existence, painting watercolours and selling off pieces of fine furniture and objets d'art when their creditors became demanding. Florian has inherited their final debts and is left with no alternative but to sell the once-beautiful property, with its 18 damp rooms and its dodgy sanitation.

Florian is an intriguing character, whom Trevor leaves the reader free to judge. He is a failed writer and painter, and a lousy photograper. He lacks any incentive or dedication and seems only to care for his ailing dog, Jessie, and to harbour unrequited love for his cousin Isabella, who might or not be in her native Genoa. Once Shelhanagh has been sold, Florian will go abroad - to Scandinavia, he thinks.

In the course of that long, hot summer Ellie falls in love with Florian, when she meets him after he has photographed the burnt-out cinema, the Coliseum, owned by the Connultys. It takes her a good deal of time and much embarrassment to declare her affection for him. She is prepared to give him her heart and soul and to go with him wherever he travels . She is suddenly in possession of feelings the nuns hadn't prepared her for. Florian is flattered by her lovesick attentiveness to the extent of embracing and kissing the farmer's wife.

Love and Summer is composed of a myriad of tiny, seemingly trivial, domestic details. The shops, businesses, pubs of Rathmoye are carefully delineated, as is the food of the period - Bisto in the stews; a strong cup of Bovril for sustenance. The town has time and room for a deranged old man, Orpen Wren. He was librarian in the stately home of the long-vanished St John family and refuses to believe they are really gone. Trevor, as is his custom, treats him with disinterested compassion. The novel concludes with a few surprises, the most important of which is deeply moving. This is the work of a true master of the narrative art.

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