Mood might be everything when I pick up a book like Love and Summer,
because to move from the rush of life and settle into the slow, measured pace
of Irish life as portrayed by William Trevor demands that the foot comes right
off the accelerator and I move ahead at walking pace. Anita Brookner requires
likewise, I’m reading Strangers and there is absolutely no point in rushing
headlong into an Anita Brookner either.
By page twenty I’ve usually realised the error of my ways, know the book is a 'stayer' and I start again.
It's summer in Rathmoye, veiled allusions to troubled pasts, and a stylish young stranger flaunting a ‘jaunty green-and-blue-striped tie’ cycles into town, reading The Beautiful and the Damned and snapping away with an old Leica camera (not all at once). It can only hint at what might lie beneath as the scene is appropriately set for an Irish novel by opening with a funeral. Thinking back to The Gathering et al, the Irish seem to do funerals better than most and Mrs Connulty’s is no exception; reputed to have owned half the town and when that town only briefly draws its blinds and closes it shops to pay its last respects there is much to be read into that limited gesture.
As events of the present slowly allow the past to be exhumed, William Trevor’s characters gradually took shape and wriggled right into my consciousness as I became increasingly immersed in this unique little microcosm of human frailty. By this time I might just have been awaiting a degree of Irish predictability in plot and character but somehow the book happily subverted all my assumptions.
Ellie the foundling who leaves the care of the nuns to become a housekeeper
‘sent into the employ of a haunted man.’
And by the time this book begins reader she has married him; the gruff but gentle and tragically widowed farmer Dillahan,
a solid but ultimately fragile man who may break at any time; the Connulty
twins, brother and sister who now inherit all the family interests on the death
of their mother and through these characters alone a wonderful delineation of how
death’s sting can go either way.
Might it set you free or might it entrap you forever?
The irony is not lost that following the death of her mother, the razor sharp, calm as ice, Miss Connulty (she who has no first name) now manages a boarding house full of male lodgers. Her barely repressed anger and my early character assassinations all tempered considerably by the eventual discovery of the tragedy that has shaped her life and all revealed in what I suspect may be William Trevor’s well-honed powers of understatement.
Gaps and silences left for this reader to fill with vats full of compassion when the truth emerges.
Talking of truth, William Trevor uses a wonderful expression ... ‘blemished truth.’
Blemished such a perfect word to describe all these lives, tainted by grief, guilt, heartbreak, gossip, rumour and the past seeping in around the edges to stain the present. When Ellie falls for the enigmatic stranger Florian Kilderry many eyes are watching her and waiting to write their own script for her in the light of their own personal griefs and tragedies.
I'm afraid my expectations for Irish writing are hopelessly and perhaps stereo-typically governed, much like we always know their entry for Eurovision will be sweetly lyrical and tuneful and not a completely off the wall ear-bashing and I can only apologise to all those cutting-edge Irish writers who may be out there pushing the envelope.
Writers like John McGahern and Sebastian Barry, Anne Enright and Deirdre Madden lead me willingly into those acres of green, lush, lyrical poetic prose and how completely William Trevor fulfilled and exceeded those expectations with Love and Summer.
Then I discover that he lives in Devon, so perhaps our verdant pastures offer a little inspiration and to know that at eighty-one William Trevor is still writing like this makes me think our water must suit him too.
This proved to be one achingly beautiful read for me, utterly absorbing and an ending that quietly took my breath away as the tangles of misunderstanding and interpretation surrounding these lives unravelled and rewove themselves into a future that would suffice for everyone...well almost everyone, there must always be some disappointments and discontent in life.
I was totally immersed and in many ways saw the book within its Booker context as a sort of reverse foil for Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn, where Eilis’s Irish qualities are transported to New York, lush pastures becoming city pavements, but Toibin's prose no less lyrical and shall we add limpid (surely there are some words that are compulsory when talking Booker ) for that.
So what mighty horns of a cleft stick of a dilemma I’m now facing here in Devon and miles away from any Booker frenzy.
There is no doubt in my mind at this stage that I will want both Brooklyn and Love and Summer on my shortlist.
Then I've just finished J.M. Coetzee’s Summertime and once I've got my head and my thoughts around it that might need to be there too.
But I already had four certainties comfortably seated around their tables at the grand dinner...