The Crack In the China

Death in Summer

by William Trevor
Viking, 214 pp., $23.95

To open William Trevor’s new novel and begin to read is to step into a rarefied world as of a perfect English garden where tea is served on a golden afternoon. It is easy to be beguiled by its harmonies and its design although after a little while one could begin to find it enclosed and confining. Can life—English country life—be as calm, as orderly as this? one wonders. Even a death, by accident, occurring tactfully offstage so that we are not shocked by anything so unsightly as blood or pain, barely causes a ruffle on the surface. It is no more than a pebble that has fallen into a lily pool and lies there, a tasteful addition to the design.

At the center is the owner of this garden of unearthly refinement, Thaddeus Davenant. He is no more than a shadow cast by a tree, a gray area, unfailingly subdued and restrained. Several women have loved him—his late wife Letitia, the young woman Pettie, and a blowzy character called Mrs. Ferry, who remembers moments in his youth when he rashly lost control. He, however, had not loved his wife although he had honored her for her goodness and kindness, and as for Mrs. Ferry, he cannot understand why she continues to send him letters of appeal from a world from which he quickly chose to disentangle himself.

Then he surprises himself by feeling an impulse of love for his newborn daughter, Georgina. So we are told, by the author, although we never see this love—perhaps a display would be embarrassing, even vulgar. When he reaches out to touch the baby the gesture is no more emotional than patting the dog. The baby, too, never takes on reality by so much as a cry; we never see it fed, bathed, dressed, or cradled: it is as inert as a doll and appears to have no bodily functions (so often unattractive). When Letitia’s mother, Mrs. Iveson, comes to care for it—unwillingly, reluctantly, out of a deeply ingrained sense of duty and propriety after her daughter’s recent death—all she does is sit beside it under a tree with a book—reading, dozing, idle. How can we care about people whose lives are so muted, who seem barely alive?

The world depicted is as exquisite as a cup of porcelain, an heirloom, so delicate that it seems improper to ask if it will hold tea, but such is human perversity, its very perfection makes one long, indelicately, for some hot, dark brew to be poured in and provide satisfaction. Without that, the cup is sterile, it is futile and redundant. But perhaps Trevor is a painter of flowers on porcelain, of pretty pictures, who fails to satisfy such coarse desires?

Of course it is not only the human appetite for the physical, or for the humanly imperfect, that provokes our growing sense of waiting, possibly of impatience. It is because he has been building—although invisibly—a tension that will reach breaking point. The tension…

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