William Trevor | Critical Essay by Julian Gitzen

This literature criticism consists of approximately 18 pages of analysis & critique of William Trevor.
This section contains 5,296 words
(approx. 18 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by Julian Gitzen

SOURCE: "The Truth-Tellers of William Trevor," in Critique, Vol. 21, No. 1, 1979, pp. 59-72.

In the following essay, Gitzen explores the themes of loneliness and self-delusion in Trevor's work.

Since the appearance of his first novel, A Standard of Behavior (1958), William Trevor has published a total of eleven volumes of fiction. Despite the popularity of The Old Boys (1964), The Boarding House (1965), and The Ballroom of Romance (1972), extensive analysis of his writing is as yet in short supply. Reviewers, on the other hand, have neither ignored Trevor nor hesitated to classify him. With virtual unanimity, they have labeled him a comic writer, differing only in their terms of reference, which vary from "black comedy" to "comedy of humor" to "pathetic" or "compassionate" comedy. As a satirist, he is most frequently compared with Evelyn Waugh, although Muriel Spark, Angus Wilson, Kingsley Amis, and Ivy Compton-Burnett are also mentioned. Additional points of comparison could readily be suggested: Trevor's ear for humorously banal small talk is reminiscent of Pinter; what has been referred to as "the incredulous, stuffy exactitude … the fustily elegant grammar" of his language recalls Beckett; his ruthless undeviating pursuit of a grubby, shabby verisimilitude evokes the work not only of Graham Greene but of such contemporaries as Edna O'Brien, John Updike, and David Storey. In addition, his interest in psychological questions and his preference for the traditional short story and novel allies him with writers as diverse as Henry James and Saul Bellow.

If Trevor is a comic writer, however, he with Beckett is assuredly among the most melancholy, as reflected in his characters' surroundings, in their situations and activities, and particularly in the theme of loneliness and hunger for love which more than any other feature distinguishes his writing. As a preface to exploring this theme, let us review Trevor's typical locales and representative features of the people who inhabit them. Consistently, his interest has focused on the marginal setting: a gaudy pub in a seedy district being demolished for reconstruction; a threadbare boarding house, its brown wallpaper and cheap furnishings unchanged for forty years; a deteriorating and unfrequented hotel in a Dublin backstreet; a tract house enveloped in tall weeds and grass, smelling of home-brewed beer and home-grown mushrooms. These are appropriate backgrounds for the lonely and forgotten, far removed from centers of purposeful activity and social ferment. Despite feeble resorts to the public media, these characters, described as "survivors, remnants, dregs," find little to which they may attach themselves. They are unenamored of the images on their television screens and cannot or will not be gathered into the collective mindless-ness of popular culture. Most typical are those at the social fringes: the timid and ineffectual middle-aged bachelor reduced to an insignificant job, the homely spinster alone with memories of dead parents, the petty criminal, ever dodging but seldom unscathed. Many are orphans in search of surrogate families; others are so old that they have outlived both family and friends. Though many are married, not a single couple is conspicuously happy or contented; indeed, distorted or frustrated sexuality abounds. With divorce almost epidemic, numerous separated characters drift into solitary middle age. The majority are more notable for weakness or failure than for strength or success, which contributes to the choice they are usually forced to make: either to recognize (and forgive) cruelty or unfaithfulness in those they love or limitations in themselves, or to cultivate comforting illusions, ranging from harmless daydreams and fantasies to compulsive and profound convictions. According to their differing temperaments and needs, some accept the truth, while others find illusions the only bearable remedy. Indeed, furnished as they often are with active capacities for fantasy and reverie, and given to daydreaming or imagining themselves in situations contrary to actuality, Trevor's characters are peculiarly well fitted for creating and sustaining illusions.

With its constriction of form, the short story highlights Trevor's thematic concerns. Each of his three collections of stories centers on a common theme, and the themes of each are notably similar. The first, The Day We Got Drunk on Cake (1967), carries no epigraph, but a fitting motto would be Mrs. Fitch's: in vino veritas. Characteristically, the setting is the pub or cocktail party, where excessive consumption loosens the tongue of one character, causing him to make blunt statements offensive to his companion. Tension increases as the unpalatable truth emerges. Alternatively, the truth about their situations occurs spontaneously to the leading characters, although the reactions of others toward them may trigger their awareness. "The General's Day" is typical, especially since it involves heavy drinking as a medium for truth. At seventy-eight, General Suffolk is among the extremely old people for whom Trevor has a particular fondness, no doubt because of their conspicuous loneliness but possibly also because he considers them the least afraid of truth and, therefore, the most refreshingly blunt of speech. On the day of the story, the General is frustrated in his attempts to carry on his favorite practices of drinking congenially with friends and seducing middle-aged women. Late at night, bitterly disappointed and very drunk, he suddenly realizes that he has grown unwelcome and even repulsive to others and thinks with lucid horror, "My God Almighty, I could live for twenty years."

The Ballroom of Romance (1972) concerns love unrequited, unequally shared, or selfishly taken for granted. Again loneliness becomes a source of anxiety, bringing with it the choice between truth and illusion. The heroine of the title story is thirty-six-year-old Bridie, whose one entertainment through the laborious years on her father's farm has been the Saturday night dance in a building named "The Ballroom of Romance." But romance has eluded Bridie, despite her faithfulness as a customer. At sixteen she fell in love with a young man whom she met at the ballroom, only to see him marry another. Having abandoned her quest for love, Bridie now aims only for a companionable marriage, centering her current hopes on the dance-band drummer. On the evening of the story, however, Bridie becomes conscious of the desperately predatory gestures of Madge Dowding, a spinster three years older; noticing the amusement of younger women at Madge's expense, Bridie realizes that she cannot return again to the ballroom, lest she too become a figure of the fun. Surrendering all further thoughts of the drummer, she resigns herself to eventual marriage to the wastrel, Bowser Egan, whom she will accept—since, after her father's death, she will be lonely. Thus Madge's loneliness betrays her into an illusion from which Bridie escapes in the cause of self-esteem, while recognizing that loneliness will in time drive her to an unpalatable compromise.

"The Grass Widows" elaborates the theme by demonstrating how features of character or age may screen out sudden truth, condemning one generation to relive the mistakes of another until it, too, gradually acquires self-awareness. While on a yearly fishing trip with her husband, the headmaster of a public school, Mrs. Angusthorpe recognizes a kindred spirit in the honeymooning bride, Mrs. Jackson, whose husband is one of Mr. Angusthorpe's former head boys. Seeing the two men behaving so compatibly, Mrs. Angusthorpe realizes that they are similarly domineering, inconsiderate, and selfish. In hopes of sparing Mrs. Jackson an unhappiness like her own, she calls the bride's attention to the "cruelty, ruthlessness, and dullness" of their two husbands. Not surprisingly, Mrs. Jackson rejects Mrs. Angusthorpe's advice that she should leave her husband and loyally protests that he is loving and considerate. With resignation Mrs. Angusthorpe concludes that, just as young Mr. Jackson is the successor to his old headmaster, so Mrs. Jackson is her own heir, locked into the guileless confidence which marked her own entry upon marriage and fated to discover in her own painful way that she is the victim of an unequal love. "An Evening with John Joe Dempsey" and "Office Romances" also treat the premise that the young often repeat the mistakes of their elders.

The Ballroom of Romance is distinguished from the other volumes of stories in offering the additional illuminative device of variations played on the mirror-image. In nearly every story the central figure is confronted by another person whose situation parallels or highlights his own. The protagonist's eventual recognition of such a parallel may engender increased self-awareness; alternately, the failure to perceive a manifest parallel creates dramatic irony. Thus Bridie's sense of her impending resemblance to Madge Dowding inspires her resolution to stop attending the ballroom in a futile search for romance. On the other hand, Mrs. Angusthorpe finds similarities enough between herself and Mrs. Jackson but fails to draw the full moral, for she remains ironically oblivious that her advice to the bride to leave her husband is even more applicable to herself. A third mirror-image appears in "An Evening with John Joe Dempsey," where a fifteen-year-old boy with greater astuteness than Mrs. Angusthorpe draws the latent parallel between himself and Mr. Lynch, the celibate but lustful middle-aged bachelor, a regular drinker at the village pub. Mr. Lynch has never left his jealous and righteous old mother, but he has lived with her at the price of lies and deception, knowing that she would be outraged if he were to act on or even confide to her his secret longings. Instead, he escapes from her to the pub, where he tells melancholy sexual anecdotes, intended, he insists, as a "warning" to lads of the town. Young John Joe, too, lives in the shadow of an overly protective widow-mother from whom already he must conceal his adolescent sexual fantasies and from whom, he wearily recognizes, he must continue to hide his desires so long as he remains, like Mr. Lynch, the willing hostage of a mother's possessive devotion.

In Angels at the Ritz (1975), Trevor's characters continue to be subjected to unpleasant truths, with the opportunity to display strength in accepting or reconciling themselves to them. In the title story, Polly Dillard confronts two bitter and closely related truths: at thirty-six she can never again recapture the exuberant frivolity with which she and her friends celebrated her twenty-second birthday at the Ritz; second, what was unthinkable in those sparkling days is about to happen: her husband will soon sleep with her lifelong friend. These circumstances she accepts as the legacy of middle age. For characters with less sturdy powers of resignation than Polly's, illusions can offer a comforting means of alleviating loneliness and reducing suffering. But as illustrated by "In Isfahan," illusion lacks the "quality" of truth. Iris Smith, discontentedly married to an Indian and living in Bombay, meets the Englishman Normanton on a day-tour of Isfahan. In another instance of in vino veritas, she consumes enough liquor to stimulate the confession that she has no desire to return to India. Clearly, she conceives Normanton as the gallant companion who will reprieve her from an unpleasant fate. Despite her candor, Normanton remains reserved and affects to ignore her tentative advances, though he does not correct her romantic speculation that he is a married architect. After her departure, he inwardly reviews his own unhappy past—including two failed marriages which have discouraged him from trying again. He perceives that their encounter has at least provided her with the comforting illusion of having "met a sympathetic man." She will never know his personal shortcoming, "a pettiness which brought out cruelty in people." Their exchange has been unequal, for his impression of her represents what she actually is, while her memory of him is composed of imagined details. He is deprived of a vital dimension: "He was the stuff of fantasy. She had quality, he had none."

In broad structural and thematic terms, Trevor's novels bear a close resemblance to his short stories. Although loneliness and illusion in dreary circumstances remain his concerns, the greater length of the novels permits him to dispense with the obvious climactic device of the obstinate and unwelcome truth-teller. While Trevor takes the opportunity for elaborate character exploration (particularly in his four most recent novels), he prefers to people the increased space of the novel with a more representative society than can be usefully treated in a short story. Usually these figures vary notably in personality and concerns but are not often blood relatives. While a single figure may emerge as "major," approximately equal attention is ordinarily given various characters. Frequent, sudden transitions shift attention from person to person, maintaining the sense that diverse activities are occurring almost simultaneously, while institutional settings serve to bring the people together. In A Standard of Behaviour the chief locale is Mrs. Lamont's boarding house for artists; the title of The Boarding House speaks for itself; and Mrs. Eckdorf in O'Neill's Hotel (1969) features a Dublin hotel. In Elizabeth Alone (1973) the characters temporarily share the convalescent ward of a women's hospital, while a pub is the center of action in Miss Gomez and the Brethren (1971). Boarding houses also provide incidental settings in both The Old Boys and Elizabeth Alone. In taking for its locale a seaside resort town, Children of Dynmouth (1976) departs somewhat from Trevor's normal institutional focus. In terms of character, setting or situation, and theme, his four most representative and typical novels to date are: The Boarding House, Elizabeth Alone, Mrs. Eckdorf in O'Neill's Hotel, and Miss Gomez and the Brethren. Like his short stories, all four concern lonely people, most of whom dream, daydream, or fantasize. In addition, all four prominently feature his favorite age-group of the late middle-aged or elderly, while each introduces one of his most convincing and successful character-types, the petty criminal, confidence man, or blackmailer. As a means of distinguishing truth from illusion, each novel introduces a character in whom the others confide, who recognizes the truth about his companions. Like the short stories, the novels avoid easy thematic conclusions. While applauding truth, Trevor repeatedly demonstrates that acceptance of truth requires resoluteness and the power of forgiveness. For those unable to forgive or reconcile themselves to cruelty or suffering, illusion may remain a necessity. Alternately, loneliness and need for love may generate a forgiving nature inspired by religious faith, one transcending straightforward distinctions between reality and unreality.

In The Boarding House, the building and its inhabitants share a shabby, semi-impoverished decorum. In the main ineffectual and undistinguished, the residents have been overtaken by loneliness, as recognized by their landlord, Mr. Bird, who describes them as "solitary spirits. Alone." Their lonely distress accounts for their fantasies and daydreams and for the dreams which visit them in sleep. Very few of Trevor's characters are not dreamers—but those few are seldom commended, since those who do not dream usually scheme; the strong willed, selfish, brutal manipulators never or seldom dream. The Boarding House is furnished with one such unenviable figure in Nurse Clock (whose name perhaps is meant as a reminder of her maddeningly reliable and unemotional efficiency and purposefulness). Her natural enemy is the malicious but inept blackmailer, Studdy, whose name (viewed from any angle) must be ironic. All three attempts by Studdy to collect blackmail payments fail, and one ends in Studdy's being punched. Though not hostile toward the other boarders, who do not threaten him, Studdy bears Nurse Clock a good deal of ill will, which she returns with interest. Nurse Clock's specialty is caring for the aged; she enjoys being able to command their obedience, while profiting financially from their dependence on her. Geriatric work in a Trevor novel requires a thick-skinned constitution, since, despite their pathetic loneliness, his ancients are not merely crotchety but alertly and energetically frank and uncompromising. When informed by Nurse Clock that it is time for her injection, the eighty-nine-year-old Mrs. Maylam replies with spirit. "You can put it up your jumper for all I care. I can look after my frigging self, you know."

Nurse Clock's ambition is to manage a nursing home, and she comes near doing so when, on the death of Mr. Bird, she inherits a half-interest in the boarding house. Unfortunately, her partner in the inheritance is Studdy; the arrangement is, of course, intentionally perverse, reflecting the secret wish of Mr. Bird that his boarding house may not long survive him. He understood the mutual rapacity of Studdy and Nurse Clock and foresaw that their shameless struggle for single ownership would reveal their true characters to their fellow boarders while simultaneously destroying the boarding house as an institution. Though newly dead at the opening of the novel, Mr. Bird functions as the truth-teller, a diarist whose observations about his boarders are invariably profound. One entry reads, "Studdy is a species of petty criminal … Yet how can one not extend the hand of pity towards him? Anyone can see that poor old Studdy never had a friend in his life." Toward Nurse Clock he is less charitable, observing, "Nurse Clock has morbid interests. She is a woman I would fear were it not for my superior position."

After his death Mr. Bird survives as a presence in the minds of his boarders and kitchen staff. He appears in their dreams, a subconscious voice threatening their illusions. Those most jealous of their illusions react most vigorously to these dream-messages. Among them is the Nigerian, Mr. Tome Obd, who after twelve years of furtive courtship, has been rejected by the Englishwoman whom he adores. Mr. Obd dreams that Mr. Bird has risen from the dead and eventually envisions him as a ghost who repeats "Alas, Tome Obd" like an incantation. In a maniacally suicidal effort to eradicate his painful vision, Mr. Obd burns both himself and the boarding house. Thus Nurse Clock's ambition is thwarted, but not before she has been revealed as a ruthless schemer, intent on dispossessing her fellow boarders. As they watch the old house burning and recognize that they must separate, the boarders face once more the loneliness peculiar to those who have no families and virtually no friends.

Elizabeth Alone introduces a change in narrative technique. While in The Boarding House the truth-telling is entrusted to a single person, in Elizabeth Alone individual characters make self-discoveries which they separately confide to another commonly recognized as reliable. The locale of Elizabeth Alone is the Cheltenham Street Women's Hospital; inevitably, the majority of notable characters are women, one of whom becomes the trusted confidant of her fellow patients. Like Mr. Bird, Elizabeth Aidallbery is charitable and compassionate but has put aside illusions in favor of truth. At forty-one she is recently divorced; with her mother in a nursing home and her daughter, Joanna, on the verge of joining a commune, Elizabeth is facing middle-age loneliness. While convalescing from a hysterectomy, she becomes acquainted with three fellow patients: Silvie Clapper loves an unreliable young Irishman named Declan; Lily Drucker is the devoted wife of Kenneth, who is dominated by a crudely possessive mother; and the elderly Miss Samson is devoted to the memory of Mr. Ibbs, late owner of a boarding house for religious persons. Mr. Ibbs, too, kept a diary and further resembles Mr. Bird in being outwardly charitable but secretly pessimistic. Before leaving the hospital, Silvie discovers that Declan is a liar and a thief, but her love enables her to accept his faults. Lily learns that before their marriage Kenneth frequently visited prostitutes, apparently because his mother's jealous dominance prevented him from courting normally. When Lily confides in her, Elizabeth sensibly counsels forgiveness, pointing out that Kenneth's furtive sexual affairs ended with his marriage. Of the confessions made to Elizabeth, the most extended and dramatic is Miss Samson's. After revealing that her discovery in Mr. Ibbs's diary of his atheism has rendered her incapable of prayer, Miss Samson shares with Elizabeth her more recent and surprising realization that she was in love with Mr. Ibbs. She explains that so long as God was associated for her with the benign Mr. Ibbs, then God, too, appeared benevolent. Deprived of Mr. Ibbs's lustre, God seems unkind and unresponsive to human suffering. Unlike Silvie and Lily, Miss Samson appears unable to accept the truth.

Aside from her interest in her fellow patients. Elizabeth maintains a concern for her lifelong friend, Henry, who is the subject of the novel's most extensive psychological study. Though a success in public school, the jovial and well meaning Henry has known only failure as an adult, whether as husband, father, or employee. Naturally, he fondly envisions a salutary self-transformation, assuming that Elizabeth will agree to marry him. While politely refusing his proposal, she secretly entertains a willingness to accept, since, like Bridie of "The Ballroom of Romance," she dreads being left alone. She rejects Henry because she recognizes that he wants help, not love, but is too old to be helped. She considers Henry "still a child" but believes this "an impossible truth to reveal, too cruel and sorrowful, for no one could be a child at forty-one and properly survive." Her prophecy is fulfilled when Henry accidentally (and with childlike carelessness) kills himself, after experiencing the sudden and lucid understanding that, as Elizabeth has said, he is still a child or at least would rather be one. After his happy and successful childhood, adult concerns and enterprises have proven uniformly "dreary and grey," and, deprived of enthusiasm for them, he has gone from failure to failure. Drink has become his refuge, becoming the instrument of his death, when he drunkenly leaves a stove unlit, is overcome by gas, and confirms Elizabeth's judgment that the truth would be "too cruel" for him to bear. Like Tome Obd, Henry is "the stuff of fantasy" and must suffer the fate of fantasies; with the strength to accommodate herself to the truth about her shortcomings and those of others, Elizabeth survives.

Another person for whom the transition from childhood to adulthood proves troublesome is Ivy Eckdorf of Mrs. Eckdorf in O'Neill's Hotel, which differs from The Boarding House in focusing unmistakably on Mrs. Eckdorf, a photographer specializing in documentaries. An intuitive impulse based on an anecdote has led her to Dublin in the hope of photographically analyzing a "tragedy in O'Neill's Hotel." Among the people she meets are: Mrs. Sinnott, the ninety-two-year-old owner of the hotel; Eugene Sinnott, her fifty-eight-year-old son, addicted to liquor and horse racing; Philomena, Eugene's estranged wife; and O'Shea, the hotel porter. In general, these characters seem more interested in their illusions than in truth. For instance, the neighborhood prostitute, Agnes Quin, fantasizes about life as Olivia de Havilland, while her friend, Eugene Sinnott, meticulously reviews his dreams in search of possible racing tips. More dramatic is the engrossing daydream of O'Shea: upon Mrs. Eckdorf's appearance, he is seized by the totally unfounded conviction that she intends to buy and restore the deteriorating hotel. Encouraged by the ruthless photographer who realizes that his fantasy provides a plausible excuse for the intimate questions she must ask in uncovering her story, O'Shea blissfully constructs an elaborate and obsessive fantasy of the hotel rising "like a phoenix-bird."

One character who escapes serious illusions is Mrs. Sinnott, whose name (sin-not) reflects the saintly disposition which attracts others to her. Deaf and dumb, she keeps notebooks in which her visitors may write, notebooks which serve a revelatory purpose like the diaries of Mr. Bird and Mr. Ibbs. Encouraged by Mrs. Sinnott's benevolence and by the secrecy of silent communication, her visitors readily confide their frustrations and yearnings. Since Mrs. Eckdorf, in time, associates Mrs. Sinnott with God, since Mr. Bird freely compares himself with God, and since Miss Samson "confuses" Mr. Ibbs with God, some analogies may be in order: like the boarding-house owners, Mrs. Sinnott has created her own self-contained world, peopling it with figures of her own choosing, watching over and governing them; like Mr. Bird and Mr. Ibbs, she has shown particular charity toward lonely and helpless orphans. Second, like the two men, she is trusted by her household and is, consequently, favored with godlike intimate glimpses of their thoughts and affairs. Finally, her speech and hearing handicap causes her to seem divinely remote and inscrutable, while her distance is physically increased by living alone (like Mr. Bird) in a room on the top floor of the building. Eventually, she joins Mr. Bird and Mr. Ibbs in death and achieves the ultimate remoteness. Although Mrs. Eckdorf comes to regard Mrs. Sinnott as a "special servant" of God, her life has been marked by no conspicuously saintly incidents, nor does the wise priest, Father Hennessey, writing a book about women saints in Ireland, think to devote even a footnote to Mrs. Sinnott.

Unlike the serene old woman she admires, Mrs. Eckdorf is driven and tormented. She traces her misery to her parents' separation during her childhood, after which her mother's sexual dissipation instilled in the daughter a disgust for sex. Unwilling to consummate either of two marriages, she has instead become a cruelly voyeuristic photographer, deceptively boasting to be an apostle of truth, "the parent of understanding and love." Her efforts to establish important facts concerning the drama of O'Neill's Hotel are for some time frustrated by the desire of the Sinnotts to maintain their privacy, but at last she finds a willing accomplice in the worshipful O'Shea, who recalls enough of one incident to permit Mrs. Eckdorf's unerring intuition to sketch in the remainder. One night, after drinking heavily. Eugene forcibly seduced the maid Philomena. When she was found to be pregnant, Eugene married her on the recommendation of Mrs. Sinnott. After the pair proved incompatible, Philomena was left to rear her son alone—but under the benevolent eye of Mrs. Sinnott.

Having resolved this mystery, Mrs. Eckdorf finds it applicable to herself. Like Philomena, she has been victimized by selfish and brutal sexual acts; unlike Philomena, she has not forgiven those intent on persuading her to "bear the thought of other people's flesh." In assuming that all of the participants in the drama at O'Neill's Hotel have forgiven each other, Mrs. Eckdorf is once more well served by her intuition. Indeed, "to have felt that sorrow everyday … would have been too much for … them to bear." Mrs. Eckdorf's failure to emulate the Sinnotts in learning forgiveness leads to her nervous breakdown. In a state of childlike simplicity (she has previously lamented that her happiness ended at the age of eight), she entertains an elaborate fantasy concerning the glorious revival of O'Neill's Hotel. O'Shea's vision, once preposterous to her, becomes her solace. She who once spoke of truth as the parent of understanding and love has been unable to act on her own wisdom. Since the inability to forgive is "too much … to bear," she can survive only by rejecting truth and welcoming illusions—and joining the hapless ranks of Henry and Mr. Obd.

Miss Gomez and the Brethren continues and thematically extends the pattern established in the previous novel. Mrs. Eckdorf and Miss Gomez share unhappy childhoods, and unpleasant sexual experiences leave both lonely and bitterly aware of human weakness. Equally gifted with intuitive powers, the women rely on them in uncovering details of "crimes" of sexual origin. The atheistic views of both suddenly give way to intense religious convictions, including the premise that "you can learn to forgive and not to condemn." Their religious attitudes cause both women to be regarded as insane, but only Mrs. Eckdorf actually becomes deranged. Finally, their common experiences testify that, although religious faith may be illusory, it generates a comforting sense of love and harmony.

The Jamaican Miss Gomez begins life in desperate need of comfort. As an infant, she is orphaned by a fire which leaves her the sole survivor of ninety-two persons. Haunted by the event, she finds life lonely and pointless. As an adult, she arrives in London, working as a stripper and prostitute until she discovers devotion-by-correspondence with the church of the Brethren of the Way. Her desire to spread the gospel of her faith brings her to Crow Street, most of whose buildings have recently been demolished. Here she gains employment as a cleaner in a pet shop belonging to Mrs. Bassett, whose assistant. Alban Roche, has served a jail term as a voyeur. The circle of acquaintances necessary to the story becomes complete when Miss Gomez agrees also to clean "The Thistle Arms," a decaying pub whose proprietors are Mr. and Mrs. Tuke. Their daughter, Prudence, is attracted to Alban, but the two young people are emotional casualties, Alban having been loved too much by his mother. Prudence having been unloved by either parent.

Sensing that a "crime" is about to overtake these people, Miss Gomez seeks to establish the relevant facts, for she wishes to try the power of mutual prayer and is proceeding according to the instructions of her spiritual leader: "When the truth is clear before us, then only may we truly pray." She discovers several important facts, among them Alban's secret oedipal yearnings for his mother, set down in his private notebooks. She also becomes aware of Mrs. Tuke's dislike for her daughter and perceives that Mrs. Tuke is "afraid of reality: she cannot bear to see herself as she is. She lives in a mist of alcohol and fantasy." Before her investigation is complete, however, she is suddenly possessed by an alarming vision which (unknown to her) coincides with the death of Mrs. Bassett. Erroneously convinced that Alban is about to rape and murder Prudence, Miss Gomez appeals desperately to the understanding and sympathy of Mr. and Mrs. Tuke. Ignoring Miss Gomez' pleas to join her in prayer, the Tukes call the police. When questioned by a police sergeant, Miss Gomez explains excitedly that only faith can counter the apparent cruelty, disorder, and meaninglessness of existence. She has been taught by the Reverend Lloyd Patterson that "there is an order … of birth and life and death and glory: nothing happens by chance. All people are part of one another, no one is alone." When the temporarily missing Prudence reappears unharmed. Miss Gomez believes her prayers have been answered. Since Mrs. Bassett has willed her money and property to Alban, Miss Gomez sees the pet-shop owner's death as an instance of divine intervention. Now Alban can offer some security to Prudence instead of being frustrated by his inability to live with her. Thus, by ending Mrs. Bassett's life in such a timely manner, God has averted a crime.

Buoyed by the admittedly disputable evidence of the power of prayer, Miss Gomez returns to Jamaica, the headquarters of the Brethren of the Way. Upon arriving, she discovers that the Reverend Patterson is a fraud, who has recently fled with the tithes of the faithful. Hers has been only another illusion, no different than the dreams of Mrs. Tuke. Though posing as a truth-teller, Patterson was instead a dream-merchant who promised his correspondents a heaven where "no one was condemned and no one was looked down upon, in which … there was no loneliness, in which you took the hand that was next to yours." Despite her disappointment, Miss Gomez concludes that only such a dream can forestall widespread madness. Instead of being shattered, her faith is strengthened. The Brethren were an illusion, but—for her—the God of the Brethren is real.

The novel adds a further dimension to the question of truth versus illusion. Physical events may be established as true or false; truth of character or personality can be determined; but what of beliefs for which the demonstrable evidence is inconclusive? Is Miss Gomez' faith a potentially treacherous illusion, or is she correct in assuming that without faith we risk madness? Though intangible, emotional states such as love and loneliness are more readily measurable than metaphysical truths. Emotion shades into faith, however, as with Miss Gomez, whose faith arises from loneliness. In such situations the question of illusion is difficult to resolve. William Trevor not only values and seeks psychological truth but recognizes the point at which it retreats into metaphysical mystery.

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