I have to say that this is, so far, my favorite of the books I have read that have been published in 2009, edging out Brooklyn. As Kevin said in his review of Love and Summer, “Toibin has more breadth…, Trevor has more depth.”
The additional depth comes not only from deeper burrowing into the psychology of the main character, but a more fully developed cast and setting. The action of the novel is constrained almost entirely to a small Irish town. The cast is not very large. It would be error, though, to suggest that the novel is of limited scope.
Most of the characters, like most people, are misfits (or perhaps malcontents) in one way or another. As Kevin and John Self noted in their reviews, the past haunts most of them and it is the way their pasts and their presents intersect that is of primary interest.
Miss Connulty is not an especially happy woman. Small towns can be places of extreme prejudice and long memories. Mistakes, and others’ memories of those mistakes, often affect small town inhabitants far into the future, in ways large and small. In Miss Connulty’s case, she never married in large part as a result of a youthful mistake. While Ellie is already married, Miss Connulty is worried that Ellie is making a mistake similar to her own. As a result of this connection in Miss Connulty’s mind, she takes a greater interest in Ellie than she otherwise would.
Ellie is a very sympathetic character. She was orphaned, raised by nuns, became a maid for an unhappy widower and, in very unromantic fashion, “promoted” (as Kevin aptly puts it) to wife. Despite the fact that Ellie has little responsibility for most of her past, the bulk having been out of her control and the rest occurring when she was too young to hold her mistakes against her, it too will intertwine with and complicate the present.
Joseph Paul Connulty is a minor, if essential, player with respect to the central events of the story. But he, too, is drawn with care and insight:
In the cemetery he changed the water in the glass container and dropped the blooms he had taken from it into a wire waste-bin supplied for this purpose. They would have lasted a few more days, even a week, but since he did not consider it fanciful that his mother each time witnessed the purchase made in Cadogan’s and the walk through the town, the changing of the water, the fresh flowers arranged, he did not take chances. It could have been that he had once, when in the cemetery, heard his mother utter – in a murmur no louder than a whisper – an expression of gratitude. But, practical man of business that he was, publican and coal merchant, who paid his debts and charged what he must, he suspected that that had been some errant sound, transformed in his thoughts to seem, momentarily, what it was not: the certainty of his faith and its related beliefs did not ever exceed his own laid-down limits of the likely.
As this portrait conveys, Joseph is established, relatively wealthy, and content with his life. Joseph has his regrets too, however, having wanted to be a priest. John Self aptly quoted the following: “The vocation slipped away from him, lost beneath the weight of his mother’s doubt that he would make a success of the religious life. In the end her doubt became his own.”
I have not read William Trevor before, but his characters feel palpably real. Joseph is not only a respectable “publican and coal merchant”, he is a man of crushed dreams. Life has worked out well enough, but not as he would have liked it. He bears a wound. This backstory, as abbreviated as it is, opens up new aspects of Joseph Paul Connulty the man. He is a minor character, but a full-bodied creation.
Of course, the primary characters are similarly well-imagined and related. Trevor provides psychological insight of such depth as to be profound. You know people like these. If not before, you will know them after you read the book. They exist, they are us, and Trevor has captured them on the page.
It may be too late to be properly disappointed that Love and Summer was not shortlisted, but I am disappointed. I love this kind of book. Interesting, believable characters involved in quiet, yet intense, psychological dramas populate my favorite novels. This is, so far, a favorite of 2009.