Thursday, February 18, 2016

Mrs Eckdorf in O'Neill's Hotel, by William Trevor

Staff review by Chris Saliba

William Trevor's black comedy about a group of misfits at a run down hotel, and the domineering Mrs Eckdorf who turns their lives upside down, proves to be another exemplary work from an author who never puts a foot wrong.

Mrs Ivy Eckdorf is a professional photographer of some note. Her work concentrates on the human condition, her philosophy being that we are connected and have a responsibility to discover each other. She’s had several acclaimed coffee table books of her photographs published. Her personal life, however, has not been so successful. She has two failed marriages behind her, to German men, and memories of a fraught childhood. When Mrs Eckdorf hears from a barman on a cruise ship that there’s a run down hotel in Dublin called O’Neill’s, she knows she has to go there.

The reason is the hotel’s inhabitants. The owner is the ninety-one-year-old Mrs Sinnott. She’s deaf and does not speak, communicating to the people in her circle through a pile of exercise books. Each exercise book contains conversations with a different person. Mrs Sinnott is quite a sympathetic person, and she allows all sorts of misfits to stay or work at the hotel. Most notoriously the local pimp, Morrissey, brings his women to the hotel for assignations with clients. These part-time prostitutes constitute a darkly humourous cast in themselves, especially the ribald Mrs Dargan, who contemplates whether she should go back to her original job as a chicken plucker.

Mrs Sinnott has two children of her own. Both have troubled lives. Enid is married to an insurance executive who is completely ignorant of her deep unhappiness. To try and bring her husband closer, Enid takes a particular interest in cooking and cataloguing recipes. In several comic scenes she is seen pressing unwanted recipes upon her visitors and offering bland tasting macaroons. Of course Enid’s husband takes no interest in her culinary efforts. Mrs Sinnott’s other child is Eugene. He works at the hotel, but is mainly a drunk and a gambler.

Into this mess of human misery and depravity steps the domineering and supremely confident Mrs Eckdorf. With great relish and gusto she throws herself into the O’Neill Hotel’s milieu. Nor is she at all reticent about sticking her nose into everyone’s business, firing off questions like a forensic investigator. This soon starts to rattle everyone and Mrs Eckdorf is brought into sharp conflict with several of the hotel’s key personalities. Yet Mrs Eckdorf’s domineering manner and confidence could be a façade hiding deeper problems, as it begins to emerge that she is clearly going quite mad.

It’s a wonder where William Trevor came up with the idea to create Mrs Ivy Eckdorf. Eerily enough, the recently discovered photographer Vivian Maier comes to mind. The parallels are quite extraordinary. Both photographers, fictional and real, can be considered rude and imperious crackpots who roamed in search of human interest stories, but end their lives somewhat deranged. Of course Vivian Maier and her extraordinary catalogue of work didn’t become known until 2008, while Mrs Eckdorf in O’Neill’s Hotel was published in 1969. Another character with similarities to Mrs Eckdorf is Shakespeare’s Lady MacBeth. Both characters are confident women of action, yet both go mad.

Mrs Eckdorf is contrasted against a cast of William Trevor’s usual misfits. Each of these characters is described in great detail and with fully developed back stories. They  are all so down and out, some like Morrissey you wouldn’t trust as far as you could throw, but in the end they turn out to be the most normal people of the whole book. Trevor also seems to love describing dinginess and decay. The picture he paints of the depressing streets of Dublin and O’Neill’s spectacular fall into disrepair are done with a perverse relish. Mrs Eckdorf especially enjoys criticising all she sees around her in Dublin, gleefully ticking off in her mind the many crimes against good taste. 

Mrs Eckdorf in O’Neill’s Hotel is a black comedy but also a mysteriously human book. William Trevor likes to drag the reader down to the level of his down and outs, forcing us to suspend judgement and asking we be a little more forgiving of those who fail miserably at life. A minor tour de force, a revelatory novel about the human condition. 

Mrs Eckdorf in O’Neill’s Hotel, by William Trevor. Published by Penguin. ISBN: 9780241969311 RRP: $22.99

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