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[396] My House in Umbria – William Trevor


Note: My House in Umbria is published under the title Two Lives, a volume of two novels.

” All I had dreamed was the chaos from which order was to be drawn, one way or another. Everything in storytelling, romantic or otherwise, is hit and miss, and the fact that reality was involved didn’t appear to make much difference. ” (6,297)

Keeping the sentiment of Reading Turgenev, bound in the same volume but published under the title Two Lives, this novella also concerns with outsiders—those who survive a deadly explosion of a train. In the first-person narrative of Mrs. Emily Delahunty, the story—many fragments of stories, slowly unveils. At age 57, she lives comfortably in a house in Umbria where she is attended by servants. Right off the bat she disclaims that she is neither a woman of the world nor is she educated. A possessor of numerous aliases, she is a battle-scarred woman with a colorful past: abused by foster parent, betrayed by a lover who left her stranded in Africa stewardess on a ship, waitress at a cafe in Africa, worked as a stewardess and waited table at cafes. She writes low-brow romances and has a successful career, but she is an outsider who has found her niche before the outrageous incident tears her life asunder.

‘Twenty pounds,’ Mrs Trice said. ‘That’s what he give. He lives a child, Mr Trice does. He got the dog for nothing.’ Rough type of people she said, to profit from a baby. ‘You bloody give it back,’ I said to him, ‘but they was gone by then. Fifty they ask, twenty he give.’ Rum and Coca-Cola, Ernie asked for in the Al Fesco, a fiver a time…’ (2,249)

Lain in the hospital, in sedated tranquility, Delahunty slips in and out of fantasies, gliding over her past and making abrupt incursion into her stories. Imagination and reality often coexist in her train of thoughts, revealing the uglier parts of her life that she would rather forget. Natural arcs of biographical information are released in drops when she returns to the safe and cozy enfold of her house in an idyllic setting. The house that has made a living out of a passing tourist trade becomes a convalescence home as its hostess returns with three survivors in tow. Together they form a sort of artificial family. Otmar, a young German with a limb short, grieves over the death of his fiancee. An old English widower, whom Mrs. Delahunty calls the General, has been left without his daughter and son-in-law. When the uncle arrives to claim Aimee, a little American girl who has retreated to stunned silence and suffers periodic amnesia, Mrs. Delahunty tries to appeal to him that for the child’s well-being it’s better for her to stay. The child is somehow the enhanced version of a character in her book, which, in turn, a reflection of her childhood.

My House in Umbria investigates, through the perspective of the world-weary Emily Delahunty, the endless complexities inherent in the simple condition of being human. In writing about the survivors and gathering glimpses of their finds she finds comfort. It’s no wonder the novella in question is paired up with Reading Turgenev, for both examine the ways in which we nourish and destroy love, lose hope or find it again, bury or redeem ourselves in creative endeavors. Whereas Mary Louise seeks after the memory and imagination of her dead cousin, Emily Delahunty consoles herself with writing. The two novellas, supplementing one another, reinforce the idea that fragments and bits of reality make up a life. Both world-weary Emily Delahunty and passionately outlandish Mary Louise Quarry have survived—for good or ill—by taking life’s “bits and pieces” and turning them into stories.

153 pp. Trade Paperback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]
Two Lives 375 pp.

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One Response

  1. “My House In Umbria” is one of the most moving, masterful stories Trevor has written. Sometimes I think it is his best. Glad to know I”m not the only person who has read it.

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