Good News

The News from Ireland and Other Stories

by William Trevor
Viking/Elisabeth Sifton Books, 285 pp., $16.95

Monkeys

by Susan Minot
Dutton/Seymour Lawrence, 159 pp., $15.95

The Anglo-Irishman William Trevor writes in a tradition of storytelling that is seldom encountered in America today. He takes for granted the importance of the historical and social setting in which he places his characters and takes pains to render it plausibly. He knows that class distinctions matter, even when they are not emphasized. He imagines a past for his characters that is more than merely personal or familial, a past that bears down continuously on their present behavior. As a result, his short stories, like those of V.S. Pritchett, often have the weight and density of miniature novels. William Faulkner once wrote such stories in this country; Peter Taylor—another southerner—continues almost alone to do so today.

The most novellike of the stories in Trevor’s impressive new collection is the title story itself, which is actually set in the past. “The News from Ireland” takes place in 1847 and 1848, when for two consecutive years the Irish potato crop has rotted in the ground. An English gentleman, Mr. Pulvertaft, has inherited the decayed estate of a distant relative in Ireland and is now busy “improving” it in the best tradition of his class. Along with the estate, the Pulvertafts have also inherited a butler, Fogarty, and a cook, Miss Fogarty, who regard their new employers with a skeptical—and, in the case of the butler, a disapproving—eye. Fogarty would like to see the estate sink back into the clay from which it came. The Pulvertafts have also hired an English estate manager—a brusque, one-armed ex-military man named Erskine—and they have imported an English governess, Miss Heddoe (“a young woman of principle and sensibility”) to take charge of the youngest of their four children. Fogarty watches Miss Heddoe’s response to Ireland with an obsessive curiosity.

Inside the estate, the conventions and entertainments of a well-conducted Victorian household are genially maintained. Outside, the famine is devouring its tens of thousands. The Pulvertafts, who are well-intentioned people, do what they can: soup is dispensed at the gatehouse to the starving women and children, and Mr. Pulvertaft has ordered a road to be built on the estate—a road leading nowhere—to give employment to men weakened by hunger.

Such is the situation when the sinister Fogarty tells Miss Heddoe (whose diaries and letters he has been secretly reading) that a newborn baby in the neighborhood has the marks of the stigmata. Reactions to this report vary greatly: the local peasantry regard the event as a miracle sent from heaven in a time of distress; the impressionable Miss Heddoe is moved; the Pulvertafts and Mr. Erskine see it as one more instance of benighted Catholic superstition; and Fogarty, when the baby soon dies, maintains that the marks were inflicted by the parents, who had already lost their other children to the famine. Time passes and complications ensue, among them a possible match between the governess and Mr. Erskine.

Trevor deftly constructs his complex story from the …

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