William Trevor is the master – probably the best in the last fifty years -of the short novel and the short story. He can give us a whole world in the compass of a short story or a short novel - as he does in Reading Turgenev. His style is intricate. He is a close observer of people and events but stays at a slight distance from them. His insights and thoughts are felt with his heart but written with his head and what emerges in his tender, precise prose is a universal truth about how people live their lives..
In Reading Turgenev in a village in Ireland an innocent young woman marries the awkward bachelor, draper Elmer Quarry – a marriage which remains unconsummated. Elmer is afraid of women. ‘Elmer had never before embraced a girl.’ although there were some fraught incidents with a stout hotel keeper. Mary and Elmer share the house above the shop with Elmer’s sisters who are toxically jealous and make her unwelcome and unhappy.
The story is told backwards as fifty six year old Mary returns from psychiatric care into the her own community. We share in Mary’s exquisite mourning of her only lovem the fragile Robert - her cousin and beloved childhood companion who helped his mother on the farm and read poetry and Russian novels. As a young woman frustrated by her barren, colourless marriage Mary starts to visit Robert and we see her gentle courtship where Robert reads Turgenev with her and they wander through the churchyard where his relatives are buried.
‘It was hot among the gravestones,
The grass was long between the graves like hay waiting to be cut even though it was spring.
‘A secret place,’ he said.
‘Yes it is.’
Stunted thorn trees bounded it within its stone wall…Some gravestones luched crookedly; thos flat upon the graves had mostly sunk at one end. ‘
Robert dies and Mary’s behaviour becomes more unconventional, and - a target for the jealous sisters – she is committed to a psychiatric ward. The whole novel is told from the perspective of the woman in the psychiatric ward and we have exquisite side-glimpses of her fellow patients, But she – and we – know she is not mad. She is just biding her time. She slips into institutional life for many years, playing the part, but living her own inner life and – we eventually learn – not taking the medication. She returns home to the elderly Elmer and continues to bide her time. We see her making a nest in a loft room, squirrelling all Robert’s remaining things there. Her strength of character and purpose at last emerges when she manages to have Robert disinterred and reburied in his beloved graveyard. She is happy.
Trevor moves smoothly between times and points of view in a witty and – despite the contrary events –life enhancing story. In his pristine clear prose Trevor shows presents events and the interactions to show us the interior lives of Mary, Elmer and Robert. He shows how village culture and custom dominate small lives. He shows us the cruelties and deceptions of apparently ‘normal’ people. He shows us how the lives of the individuals are not seen as important as the life of the community, rendering an almost glacial passivity in Mary, who is the victim of these cruelties and deceptions. This of course ultimately demonstrates the power of Mary actions – first in her gentle and determine courtship with Robert and then decades later, her power to ensure that Rober is buried where he would wish to be buried.
The under song in this novel is the way that the natural world provides the backdrop for this unique love story.
The heron is a symbol of their love:
‘ … (heron)… neck extended, it dipped its long beak into the water, no doubt fishing for trout, although the distance was too great to allow them to observe how successful these efforts were. It stuttered closer to the water on its ungainly legs, spread out its wings and flew away.’
Very highly recommended to both readers and writers.