IT IS THE winter of 1848 in rural Ireland. Famine is ravaging the countryside, filling common graves with bloated bodies. The young English governess at the Pulvertaft estate is appalled. "It is five months since I arrived here, and all that I have learnt is distressing," she writes in her diary. "There is nothing that is not so. Last night I could not sleep again. I lay there thinking of the starvation, of the faces of the silent women when they come to the gate-lodge for food. . . I lay thinking of the men who are turned away from the work on the road because they have not the strength that is necessary."
In the wonderfully rich title story of William Trevor's latest collection, tensions on the Pulvertaft estate reflect grave troubles throughout the land. The road the governess refers to in her diary leads nowhere. It circles the estate and loops back on itself, a make-work project to employ the local poor. Starving tenants are flocking to exile ships bound for America. A baby is born with what seem to be stigmatic wounds. Were they inflicted by desperate parents? In the end, it hardly matters. The child dies, the famine grows worse, the governess marries for convenience, and the country's future "withers away" like its past. The news from Ireland is grim.
The news is grim in each of the 12 stories in this powerful book. In several tales with contemporary settings, lonely women worry that life will pass them by. Invariably, it does. After an unfruitful 16-year love affair with a married man, Verity succumbs to despair, gives up her flat and her independence, and devotes herself to humoring her difficult, widowed father. At the opposite end of the social spectrum, over which Trevor ranges with the skill and knowledge of a British John O'Hara, a crippled girl at a remote crossroads store, a devourer of pulp westerns, marries a scheming local playboy because no one else will have her. In a suburb of London, a former chorus girl drinks away the twilight of her career, waiting for "Mr. Robin Right" to come along and rescue her. And in "Running Away," the saddest story I've read in years, a sensitive woman forced to confront her hollow marriage almost, but not quite, manages to establish a new and better life for herself.
What keeps these studies in human failure from becoming unbearably bleak is Trevor's endless sympathy for his characters. He has the gift of suggesting the whole sweep of their circumscribed lives with a single telling detail -- the crippled girl's library of thriller westerns, for example. And he approaches his material from all kinds of unusual angles that produce surprising results.
Four of the best stories in the collection, including the title story, have the texture and impact of much longer fictions. Each perfectly illustrates Henry James's definition of a short story as "a situation revealed." And in each instance, the revelation hinges on a moral insight. In "Music" a traveling salesman of women's underwear has a secret dream. Unlike his back-slapping father, who traveled the same territory before him, he hopes to escape "the eternal entering of drapers' shops" through his talent as a composer. Encouraged from an early age by a local priest and a neighbor woman who use him for their own ends, he spends every spare hour working on an interminable choral symphony. At last, however, he's forced to admit a truth he has suspected for years. "It was his longing to walk away from his Ford Fiesta, from his parents' house and from Ireland, that made him different from his father, not his modest musical aptitude."
"The Wedding in the Garden" turns on a similar insight. Dervla, a pretty dining-room maid at a middle-class hotel in a provincial Irish town, falls in love with Christopher, the proprietors' son. His parents give the young couple an ultimatum: break off the relationship or see Christopher disinherited. The boy capitulates, but in a brilliant twist of his plot, Trevor has Dervla stay on permanently as a maid. Years later, at his wedding to an archdeacon's daughter, Christopher realizes that remaining at the hotel is his ex-lover's "undramatic revenge . . . He had dealt in cruelty and so now did she."
CRUELTY, THE inability to make meaningful commitments, bad judgment and a measure of bad luck -- all these themes come sharply into focus in my favorite story in the collection. "Two More Gallants" is a sequel to James Joyce's classic account of a young Dublin maid who, from misguided love for an unprincipled man-about-town, robs her employer. In Trevor's story Joyce's "gallants" have been supplanted by a perpetual student named Heffernan and his friend Fitzpatrick. Enraged by a literature professor's playful teasing, Heffernan concocts an elaborate and especially vicious revenge. On the pretext of visiting Fitzpatrick, he bribes an elderly servant at his friend's rooming house to dupe Professor Flacks into believing that she served as the model for the girl in Joyce's story. When Flacks reads a paper announcing his great discovery at an international seminar, Heffernan savagely exposes him as one more credulous victim of that "cobweb of human frailty" in which all of this somber and tolerant author's characters are trapped.
Repeatedly during his career, William Trevor himself has been compared to James Joyce; certainly there are many similarities. Yet like Joyce before him, Trevor is entirely his own writer, with his own uncompromised vision of human limitations made accessible by a rare generosity toward his characters and their blighted lives.