Monday, January 15, 2024

the last book I read

Love And Summer by William Trevor.

We're in Ireland, probably 1960s or thereabouts, in the little town of Rathmoye. All the usual caveats about small towns apply here - everyone's business highly visible to everyone else, and moral judgment swiftly and ruthlessly dispensed, especially with this being 1960s Ireland and the whole S-E-X thing being wholly off the table, both in terms of talking about it or, God forbid, actually doing it.

Those would certainly have been old Ma Connulty's views on the subject, not that we can ask her, what with it being her funeral. Her two children, now middle-aged themselves, are left to dispose of her assets and attend to the family business (running a hotel/B&B). Most of the town turns out to pay their respects, including Ellie Dillahan, a convent girl employed as housekeeper to a local farmer, a widower whom she subsequently married. Also in attendance is Orpen Wren, former retainer to an old aristocratic family who lived in a grand house on the outskirts of Rathmoye. The family have long since moved away and the house is derelict, but Orpen has a few kangaroos loose in his top paddock, still imagines himself to be in their employ and carries around a sheaf of papers for safekeeping in anticipation of their eventual return.

Also hovering round the fringes of the funeral is a stranger, on a push-bike and brandishing a camera. This turns out to be Florian Kilderry, son of a bohemian Irish-Italian couple, both of whom are now dead, leaving Florian the sole custodian of a rambling country house a short bike ride from Rathmoye. Florian has been rattling around the house for a while, hanging out with his dog, mooning around wistfully remembering glorious summer days in the company of his gorgeous Italian cousin Isabella, whom he clearly remains hopelessly in love with, but is slowly coming to the realisation that he needs to snap out of it, get a grip, sell the house, which is in need of extensive renovation and clearly impractically huge for one person, and move somewhere else, probably England. 

Florian and Ellie strike up a conversation on one of her periodic trips into Rathmoye - her husband Dillahan preferring not to venture into town often as he fears gossip after the death of his first wife and child in a farming accident that was partly his fault. This all proceeds innocently enough at first but they are soon arranging secret meetings in one of the ruined houses outside the town. Ma Connulty's daughter, who does have a name but is pretty universally known as Miss Connulty, has noticed the change in Ellie's behaviour patterns, her Unsuitable Men radar especially sensitive after a similar brush with trouble in her own youth (and a clandestine trip to Dublin for a back-street abortion). 

Ellie imagines herself to be in love with Florian, his talkativeness and interest in her a refreshing change from her kind but taciturn husband, prone to haunted silences when his thoughts turn to his first wife. Florian seems to be taking a more measured attitude to the whole thing, recognising that Ellie is taking all this more seriously than he is, and that realistically their tentative relationship isn't going to survive him selling up and leaving. Eventually a firm date for the new owners to move in and for Florian to leave Rathmoye is agreed upon - will Ellie's increasing desperation induce her to some sort of indiscretion that will prompt more than the vague murmurings that have been heard in Rathmoye so far? Will Miss Connulty be able to intervene and bring Ellie back down to earth? Will Orpen Wren's slender grip on reality make him say the wrong thing to the wrong person and inadvertently reveal something? 

Well, you can see any number of ways in which this might end, especially if the answer to some of the above questions is "yes" - Ellie attempting to run away to England with Florian, Dillahan finding out and coming after Florian with a shotgun, Florian being racked with guilt and throwing himself off the roof, that sort of thing. Nothing as lurid as that happens, though - Florian heads off to England and Ellie returns to Dillahan and the farm and the status quo is broadly restored.

Some previous William Trevor books - certainly the two I've read, The Children Of Dynmouth and Felicia's Journey - have had an undertone of something slightly weird and troubling going on in the background. Nothing like that here - in fact I would agree with Sebastian Barry's assessment of Love And Summer as "fabulously benign", without intending it as quite as much of a compliment as Barry does. There's an interesting and salutary contrast with this book's predecessor on this list, Ancillary Justice, here - if you're not going to write a thrilling story of space warfare and treachery, and instead choose to write a book where precious little happens (even between Ellie and Florian - by the third or fourth episode of chaste hand-holding in a flowery field the impatient reader is tempted to get a bit JUST FUCK ALREADY) you have to hold the reader's attention in other ways, in particular by acute observation of how people are; how they act and interact with each other, what they say, and, equally importantly, what they don't say. Trevor is masterful at this and there's plenty of it here, though the edge of tartness, the salt in the caramel if you will, in the other books mentioned above probably makes them a more rounded and satisfying read.

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