Ellie is a foundling, raised by the nuns at Cloonhill, placed with the widowed farmer Dillahan as a servant (“there’s not many as lucky”) and later promoted as his wife — the only difference in that new state being that she now shares a bed.
Florian Kilderry is another orphan, albeit a recent one. His watercolor-painting parents have recently died and he has inherited a rambling and declining 18 room house and a lot of debts. He is a decent enough fellow, still trying to find himself, somehwat aimless with no real trade or ambition.
Miss Connulty (she has a first name but even her twin brother hasn’t used it for decades) is the daughter of the recently deceased matron of the town of Rathmoye. The family controls much of the town commerce (pub, coal yard and B and B) and she has just moved into the large bedroom, taking with her the family jewels and her own tortured memories.
Orpen Wren used to be a servant of the St Johns of Lisquin, a family long departed from Rathmoye with their own scandals responsible. But Wren continues to live in that past, jealously guarding the family papers as he awaits the return of a St John of the current generation and, in the meantime, wandering the town in his own version of a realitiy set some decades past.
Does this seem to shape up like William Trevor country? While I haven’t read a lot of his work, it did seem like familiar territory to me only a few pages in — a cast of characters who are for the most part likable, yet every one of them harbors powerful influences from a past that, as the book unfolds, will move more and more into the present and become ever more threatening.
Florian shows up at Mrs. Connulty’s funeral with his camera (photography is the latest career option for him). He is actually in search of the remnants of the town cinema (where Mr. Connulty perished in a fire) but does stop to take some pictures of the funeral, much to the dismay of Miss Connulty. He asks Ellie for directions.
And they fall in love.
If you want straightforward, logical plot, William Trevor is not your author. If you are willing to grant him a fair bit of licence, you get ample rewards. He specializes in burrowing to depths of detail that, in the final analysis, do support the uncertainty of his plot developments:
Cycling out of town, Ellie wondered who the man who’d been taking photographs was. The way he’d asked about the old picture house you could tell he didn’t know Rathmoye at all, and she’d never seen him on the streets or in a shop. She wondered if he was connected with the Connultys, since it was the Connultys who owned the picture house and since it had been Mrs Connulty’s funeral. She’d never seen photographs taken at a funeral before, and supposed the Connultys could have employed him to do it. Or he was maybe off a newspaper, the Nenagh News or the Nationalist, because sometimes in a paper you’d see a picture of a funeral. If she’d gone back to the house afterwards she could have asked Miss Connulty, but the artificial-insemination man was expected and she’d said she’d be there.
Trevor’s characters lead small lives in a small town with small concerns, like meeting the artificial-insemination man. That does not mean that the tragedy that awaits them is anything but small.
Florian and Ellie continue to meet, seemingly without purpose, except to the spying eyes of Miss Connulty who projects her own unhappiness and history onto their relationship. It is entirely without basis; it turns out to be correct.
Ellie’s husband, the farmer Dillahan, carries his own remorse — he backed a loaded trailer into his wife and child, killing them both. Ever since, he has carried the feeling that the entire town is speculating on what his responsibility for the accident (drunkenness? desire?) was. The characters of Love and Summer don’t repress history, they attribute meaning to it and let it influence their present.
And while Orpen’s memories may come from a confused, semi-demented past they do have their own version of sense — and his determination to recount them provides a key leverage point in Trevor’s plot.
This novel (and previous Trevor works that I have read) does have its inconsistencies — such as the rapidity with which Ellie and Florian fall in love. Also, while Florian lives within easy cycling distance of Rathmoye it appears he has never been there before the book opens, neither do any of the residents know him. Farmer Dillahan, who has a car, has never been to Florian’s village either. None of this is believable in a conventional sense; I’d like to think that Trevor is using these illogical inconsistencies not sloppily but deliberately, to remind readers that some characters consciously choose to lead constrained lives. The author makes them pay a price for that.
It took me two readings to appreciate what Trevor accomplishes with this novel. The world that he portrays is so tightly-constrained that the first time through “major” incidents pass unnoticed — there is not a lot of cause in this work, there is a lot of effect. I think his point is that the simple contains all the elements that will produce tragedy that the complex does and his world is that simple. It is an exceptionally well-done work that demands attention and “ear” from the reader like few others, but in the end rewards the perseverance. It is not the kind of novel that appeals to everyone’s taste; it certainly appealed to mine.
For anyone who is contemplating the Booker longlist, it is impossible not to make comparisons between this novel and Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn (reviewed here). Both are set in small towns in Ireland that are experiencing change (Trevor doesn’t actually say Rathmoye is in Ireland but it seems a fair assumption). The central character in both — Trevor’s Ellie and Toibin’s Eilie — is a confused young woman, not quite up to dealing with everything that is around her. There are certainly differences; Toibin has more breadth (much of Brooklyn is set in the U.S.), Trevor has more depth. This novel is more finely written, but Toibin’s bigger canvas adds more layers of interest. I liked both and do appreciate the differences. If forced to make a choice (as the Booker jury at some time must), I would opt for the Toibin — but that is probably more a reflection of my living in North America rather than a conclusion about the quality of the book.