book review

The human stain

Federica Bordoni for the boston globe

List the topics that William Trevor tackles in his final collection of short stories — adultery, alcoholism, exhibitionism, amnesia, possible murder, possible suicide — and they sound like fodder for sensationalist fiction one stop short of tabloid-headline fare.

Yet his tales are full of quiet ambiguity and subtle nuance. They don’t shout their subject matter. They take sidelong glances at it. They hint where other writers would spell things out, and they often end on notes of enigma as Trevor’s characters reconcile themselves to “love made ordinary” or embrace “consoling doubt.”

Last Stories,” a slender collection of 10 tales, serves a modest capstone to the Anglo-Irish writer’s long and acclaimed career. Trevor was born in southern Ireland in 1928, lived most of his adult life in England, and died in 2016. His stories range in setting from isolated Irish farmsteads to seedy London offices and pubs. There seems to be no walk of life that’s unfamiliar to him. He’s at home with both the provincial and the urbane. His eye for strength of character is as sharp and sympathetic as his eye for folly.


“I have no messages or anything like that,” he once told The Paris Review. “I have no philosophy and I don’t impose on my characters anything more than the predicament they find themselves in.”

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Some characters face their predicaments with a steady grace. Others go totally off the rails.

Two stories involve characters who overstep their bounds and refuse to take “no” for an answer. In “Mrs Crasthorpe,” the adulterous title character is recently widowed, currently between lovers, and coping with a “persistent offender” son who’s in jail (Trevor keeps you guessing what his offense might be). Ready for fresh male company, she stops a man in the street, asking for directions to an address that doesn’t exist — something she’s done before. We see the story through the man’s eyes as well and know she won’t get far with him.

While the story leads to a moment when this stranger becomes the unlikely keeper of Mrs Crasthorpe’s secrets, its high point is a sentence that, like a skeleton key, unlocks the essence of her character: “Abrupt and dogmatic, her manner might have seemed rude, but she managed to make it an unawareness, as probably it was.”

In “Making Conversation,” the impossible character is a pasty, chubby, lovesick middle-aged man who’s certain that a younger woman, whom he helped to her feet after she took a fall, is his soulmate-to-be. For weeks he won’t leave her alone, despite her protests. (“Look, it’s an intrusion.”) Things get even more complicated when his wife becomes convinced the mismatched pair are having an affair and suspecting her vanished husband might be about to commit suicide. Suicide requires a certain kind of bravery, however, and Trevor strikes his darkest note when this desperate would-be lover has to acknowledge that “courage is ridiculous when the other person doesn’t want to know.”


Other stories are studies in stoicism. An affair between a student and her former tutor in “An Idyll in Winter’’ has its ecstatic moments before circumstances and responsibilities conspire to make it impossible. “We live with consequences,” the man reflects aloud. “We have to, and we can.”

The closing story, “The Women,” takes self-restraint one step further. A young motherless girl — placed in boarding school by her devoted father who hitherto had raised her on his own — becomes aware of two women in their fifties who turn up to spy on all her school activities, from hockey games to stage productions. They even start giving her gifts. These baffling moves make her think there’s something her father hasn’t told her about her parentage. Trevor gives us hints of what the real story might be, while also steering us to see the daughter’s kindness in refraining from forcing her father to reveal all.

Even when Trevor dabbles in gothic-fiction territory, as in “The Crippled Man,” he maintains a certain distance from the central action, letting you see it through eyes of two characters — itinerant handymen — who are wary of getting too involved in the story’s possibly ghoulish turns.

Often the drama of a Trevor story stems from what doesn’t happen. In “Taking Mr Ravenswood,” a young bank clerk and her boyfriend have a scheme for robbing an elderly bank customer who’s taken an interest in her — but they don’t get quite what they expected. In “At the Caffè Daria,” betrayal and jealousy take two women’s former friendship in an unexpected direction.

A few of the book’s stories feel gratuitously downbeat or gimmicky. It’s hard to buy into the viability of an amnesiac’s life as an art-restorer in “Giotto’s Angels.” And the utter isolation of the title character in “The Unknown Girl” (“she’d had no visitors, had not once used the telephone, received no letters”) verges on the maudlin.


But these are in the minority. Most of the narratives in this collection rank with the finest tales of this master of the form and remind us of why he will be missed.


By William Trevor

Viking, 213 pp., $26

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Novelist Michael Upchurch (“Passive Intruder”) is the former Seattle Times book critic.