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[365] Death in Summer – William Trevor

” Four days go by, during which Maidment is unaware that his eavesdropper’s role is shared. Nor does Zenobia know that she is regularly observed lingering in the sunshine after gathering herbs. Thaddeus is ignorant of a passion that will not be stilled. Mrs. Iveson knows nothing of her detestation. ” [9:133]

The book opens with a funeral of Letitia Davenant, who was knocked off the bicycle on the way to retrieve pullets. It’s followed by two more deaths. Thaddeus Davenant, the penurious descendant of an illustrious family, has just buried his young and generous wife—a rescuer of stray dogs and champion of street drunks. Fallen from prestige his family had once enjoyed, he married Letitia for money and slowly came to appreciate her gentleness, but too late to feel her love. After interviews with nanny applicants fail to produce a candidate, his mother-in-law, Mrs. Iveson, volunteers to move into Quincux House as child-minder to Thaddeus’s infant daughter.

It was just before the old woman said they’d go upstairs to the nursery that [Pettie] knew she definitely had feelings for him. [3:57]

Devastated when she’s not hired, desperate and love-starved, and may have been a mental case, Pettie, brought up in a foster home where she was sexually abused, becomes morbidly obsessed with the life she imagines she would live with Thaddeus. On the one occasion in which he interviews her, Pettie has cottoned up to her prospective employer. Seeing Thadeeus needs love and the infant protection, she sets out to prove her love and compassion for the Davenants, while at the same time concocts a plan to rid of Mrs. Iveson, whom she thinks is the reason of her not getting hired. Interwoven with domestic crises is a former mistress, one Mrs. Ferry, stricken by a terminal illness, seeks constant financial succor out of Thaddeus.

Thaddeus does not intend to disclose the fact of his widowhood, feeling that in the circumstances it would not be sensible to do so. He has respected Letitia’s wishes, he’ll send whatever is demanded in the future . . . [4:63]

Though the prose is beautiful, meticulous, and restrained, Trevor writes impressionistically, describing a slow, back-lit reality redolent with distractions. Every character relapses into stream of consciousness—ruminating memories that are mottled, and warped in time. That Thaddeus has unwittingly introduced evil into his household, and that the ominous outcome is always looming, provide maybe the only continuous appeal to the novel. As the story unfolds in third-person, the flow is often punctuated by distracting and sometimes confusing personal reflections. These barrage thoughts and their purposes can be very baffling, especially when Pettie, who is mentally infirm, seems to dwell on issues irrelevant of the Davenants. The many nuances of the book beg for more than one reading but also backfire its appeal. It’s literary hiccup: worth the wrestle but not easy to like.

214 pp. Hardback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

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6 Responses

  1. Worth the wrestle but not easy to like, Eh? Looks like it’s interesting but maybe for a time when I have a little bit more, well, time.

    • The many lines of stream of consciousness forces me to slow down. The story, after all, is not that complicated. It’s like disentangling knots.

  2. Sounds a little like Hand that Rocks the Cradle.

    A literary hiccup? Love that phrase.

    • Hiccup is how I feel reading the book. Every once in a while it forces you to backtrack—a lot actually, and then try to figure out what the stream-of-conscious has to do with the story.

  3. I’ve always struggled a bit with stream of consciousness novels but have managed to enjoy a few by Faulkner. Based on your review of this one I don’t think I would enjoy it and so will probably not add it to my list.

    • The book definitely challenges a reader. Virginia Woolf’s stream of consciousness is even more intense than this one. It just begs for more concentration and time.

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