Friday, 18 November 2011

"The Boarding House" by William Trevor

William Trevor was born an Irishman, though he has ended up living in Devon. He remains largely unknown to many, despite having won the Whitbread Prize three times and having been nominated for the Booker no less  than five times.

The Boarding House comes as part of a trilogy published by Penguin as Three Early Novels. The others, incidentally, are The Old Boys and The Love Department, but this was my favourite of the three.

The plot is simple. An eccentric old gentleman who owns a boarding house dies, and leaves it to two of the occupants, who hate each other but are now forced to work together. The former owner saw the house not so much as a business but as a zoo, collecting specific specimens of humanity. All have their quirks and sadnesses. All have by some standard or other, failed in life, and are now drifting along in this equivalent of a ship's life-boat.

Trevors' style is almost surreal, particularly his conversation, which at first sounds heavily contrived . It has almost the quality of what we wished we had had the presence of mind to say at the time, rather than what we actually did. This comes across even more strongly in The Old Boys in which a married couple converse as if writing letters to each other. However, while strange initially, this actually grows on you, and certainly it acts as a boost to characterisation. These are, for the most part, quite strange people, and the reader can almost feel as if they are undergoing a voyeuristic experience. Somehow we always seem to end up knowing more about people than we really want to.

Trevor has that indispensable quality of a great novelist, his own voice. He is genuinely "different". He also happens to write very well. So well, in fact, that it must be questionable whether these books from the early 1960s would find a publisher today.