Thin Ice

Other People's Worlds

by William Trevor
The Viking Press, 243 pp., $10.95

The State of Ireland: Seventeen Stories and a Novella

by Benedict Kiely
David R. Godine, 389 pp., $14.95

Since The Old Boys appeared in 1964, William Trevor has written seven novels and four collections of short stories. His first novel displayed a kind of mannered sedateness reminiscent of Ivy Compton-Burnett’s; since then, his natural precision and astringency have been tempered by a strain of informality, which often appears in the garrulous speech of underlings, home helpers, shopgirls, and the like. This is not without its dangers. In catching the authentic tones of the drab and vacuous, he has sometimes produced a drab and vacuous effect. At his weakest, in the novel Elizabeth Alone (1973), for example, he assembles a cast of dull people in dismal predicaments and imposes no firm outline on the events of their lives.

It may be, indeed, that the short story, with its compression, its concentration on a single mood or incident, and its necessary simplification of character, is the perfect medium for his special gifts. One early story, the excellent “Raymond Bamber and Mrs. Fitch,” sets out in the clearest way the elements of Trevor’s later plots, including the moment of climax when the complacent individual is exposed to the worst horrors of social embarrassment and emotional shock. In this case the theme is treated comically, because Raymond Bamber, a bore with a nanny complex that he inflicts on Mrs. Fitch, is a figure suited to the comic mode; but Trevor has since used a variety of tones to make a basic point about the precariousness of the illusions which sustain most people’s lives. The crucial character in his novels and stories is the person who blurts out a piece of distressing information.

William Trevor’s destructive truth-tellers are always self-absorbed, in the grip of an obsession, drunk, demented, or just trying out a bit of blackmail, like Timothy Gedge, the terrible child in The Children of Dynmouth (1976), who lacks the brightness, the verve and precosity of an enfant terrible. They are often in a distraught condition resulting from the discovery of an emotional wrong that has been done to them. Sometimes they become confused and deluded; but their slanderous assertions are never entirely without foundation.

In the new novel, Other People’s Worlds, it is Doris Smith, a saleslady employed in the shoe department of a general store in a run-down part of London, who imposes herself, her vagaries, all the miserable, unedifying details of her sorry life, on those whom her confidences can only dismay. She is not to blame. The downfall of Doris, her drunkenness and eventual lunacy, occur as a consequence of her fateful association with Francis Tyte, a bit-part actor, scrounger, opportunist, and inventor of pleasing life-histories for himself. As well as Doris, a couple of elderly sisters by the name of Massmith, a doctor’s wife, the rich Kilvert-Dunnes, a sixty-year-old Jewish dressmaker, and, most importantly, an officer’s widow named Julia Ferndale have suffered from Francis’s calculating attentions. Men were deceivers ever, and never more dangerous than when they are also self-deceivers. Francis believes that retribution is owed…

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