FAMILY SINS & OTHER STORIES
By William Trevor
Viking. 250 pp. $18.95
WILLIAM TREVOR is a writer who revels in restraint. His narrators rarely raise their voices, his ironies go about their deadly business unobtrusively and his characters are quietly compromised or paralyzed by forces of which they are hardly aware.
An Anglo-Irishman who enjoys a considerable following in this country as well as in the British Isles, Trevor has been writing his precise, understated stories and novels for more than a quarter of a century. (Family Sins and Other Stories is his seventh collection of short stories, and he has published 11 novels.) In the same cool, unflinching voice, he has explored the miasma of contemporary suburban life and the poisoned history of his native Ireland, the overt miseries of the down-and-out and the quiet desperation of the middle class, the hollow ring of the urban sophisticate and the pathetic illusions of the rural poor.
Despite this broad range of interests, Trevor's short stories tend to follow a pattern. At the center of most of them lies a repressed or buried truth, and the story consists not in the usual conflict and resolution but rather in the stealthy, subtle teasing to the surface of consciousness -- the reader's as well as the character's -- of this frequently pernicious secret.
The prisons that Trevor's characters find themselves in, especially in his stories about Ireland, are often constructed out of inhibiting attitudes enforced by family and community. In this latest collection, a story entitled "A Husband's Return" takes as its central character a young rural Irishwoman whose husband has run away with her sister and so brought disgrace upon the family. After the sister dies from a botched abortion, the husband returns to the farm one night in secret to ask forgiveness, saying that the child was not his and that the sister had frequently betrayed him.
The wife knows her sister well enough to believe that this is probably true, but she cannot take her husband back, however much she might be inclined to, because the small social world that she inhabits has already passed its judgment. As the conclusion of the story insists, in a characteristically undramatic voice, the wife is imprisoned by the false perceptions of other people. "People would be sorry for her, but they would always say it was her foolishness that had dragged the family through disgrace, her fault for marrying a scoundrel. In the farmhouse and the neighborhood that was the person she had become."
Marriage frequently emerges in Trevor's writing as an institution more likely to paralyze than liberate. In "The Third Party," an Irishman from the provinces travels to Dublin to meet the man with whom his wife has fallen in love. This is precisely the kind of situation that Trevor delights in, and the screws of irony are tightened further when it is revealed that the husband's purpose is to ensure that his wife will leave him. The story gets one last Trevoresque twist when the wife's lover turns out to be a despised former schoolmate of the husband's, leaving him unwilling to give up his wife, and so trapped in a marriage that has brought him nothing but misery. PART OF the considerable pleasure in reading Trevor's short stories lies in observing how the truth about his characters gradually takes shape. No detail is wasted, no description is without its suggestive nuance, and the experience is something like watching a photograph being developed, with the fragments and images emerging finally into a complete picture.
Here, for example, is a description of an abortionist, taking his leave of a young couple who have come to him for help. "Mr. Minogue removed his white coat and led the way to the door of his shop, glancing before he opened it around the edge of an advertisement for liver salts pasted to its glass. The street was empty. As there had been no salutation, so there was no farewell."
This scene occurs in the memory of the young husband of the woman concerned. Although he is not the father of the child, he married her after she decided at the last minute not to go through with the abortion. The story juxtaposes this memory, and others like it, with an account of the young couple's honeymoon, and its details and imagery evoke with all the powerful economy of the short story at its best the atmosphere of joylessness and doubt that undermines the young man's feelings about his new marriage.
One model for this kind of writing, and for the bleak vision that informs it, is the short stories of James Joyce, written, Joyce once said, in a style of "scrupulous meanness" and intended to give the Irish "one good look at themselves in my nicely polished looking-glass." Trevor's short stories are undoubtedly well polished, and if their major effect is to give his readers -- Irish and nonIrish alike -- the chance to see themselves more clearly, if more painfully, that is perhaps the most one can ask of a writer.
Gregory A. Schirmer teaches English at the University of Mississippi, and is the author of "The Poetry of Austin Clarke" and "William Trevor: A Study of His Fiction."