Wednesday, March 11, 2015

The Boarding House, by William Trevor

Staff Review by Chris Saliba 

William Trevor’s 1965 gem skillfully describes a boarding house full of eccentrics and desperate cases. It is a story of damaged people who can barely cope with life.

Boarding houses often turn up as pivotal locations for British fiction - think of Patrick Hamilton’s The Slaves of Solitude (1947) and Brian Moore’s The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (1955), to name but a few. In this 1965 novel, Irish novelist and short story writer William Trevor uses the boarding house as a location for the lonely, the odd and the pathetically mercenary. The Boarding House is a story that is very dark, with a sly humour that can pass you by if you’re not careful.

William Wagner Bird, as the novel opens, is on his deathbed. He is the owner of the boarding house at 2 Jubilee Road. He has hand picked all the residents himself, all of whom have their own particular foibles and peculiarities. As the novel unfolds, each individual resident’s backstory is teased out in great detail. These individual histories are full of shame, disappointment and self-delusion.

It is Nurse Clock, one of the long term residents, that tends at Mr Bird’s deathbed. She is both manipulative and ridiculous (early on we learn that she enrolled in a charm school run by two unrepentant frauds, the hilariously named Sir James and Lady Lord-Blood.)  When the will is finally read out, Nurse Clock and her enemy, fellow long time resident Studdy, inherit the boarding house. There is one stipulation in Mr Bird’s will: all the residents must be allowed to stay on. Of course this request from the grave looks to be on shaky ground. Not only is Nurse Clock keen to exploit the boarding house for her own ends, her enemy and business partner, Studdy, is just as unscrupulous. (Amongst Studdy’s hobbies are blackmail and anonymous letter writing.) Once Mr Bird is gone, the centre cannot hold and things quickly start to fall apart.

William Trevor is a superbly skillful storyteller. The miracle of this novel is that Trevor juggles a large cast of so many different characters, weaving their stories in and out of the narrative, yet making each one nuanced and psychologically compelling. His writing draws you into a  dark world of damaged people who can barely cope with life. There is much sympathy in this gallery of bizarre human portraits, but just the right distance too so they don’t become mawkish and somewhat sentimental. This really is masterful writing.   

The Boarding House, by William Trevor. Published by Penguin. ISBN: 9780241969274 RRP: $22.99

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