First of all: Last Stories. Last Stories. William Trevor died in 2016 – that year when a lot of famous people died, so many famous people that it warranted discussions – online, in the press, on TV – asking just what was going on? Why were so many famous people dying? Did they know something we didn’t? I only mention it because the death of William Trevor actually bothered me – in the same way that the death of Mose Allison (same week as William Trevor) or Mark E Smith did – and his death got lost in the general handwringing. I spent the summer before last reading all of his short stories – the 11 books that preceded this one – and so I would (a) count myself a fan and (b) agree with everyone who said that he was one of the greatest short story writers to have ever lived. No exaggeration. So the definitive title of this book makes me sad. This is it.
What we have here are 10 stories, three of which (‘The Piano Teacher’s Pupil’, ‘Mrs Crasthorpe’ and ‘The Women’) have appeared previously in The New Yorker. If you’re familiar with Trevor, you’ll recognise the people he is drawn to: spinsters, widows, people elbowed into lives they would not choose to live, nursing grievances, worked on by unscrupulous others. These are people who care about how they are seen. The eponymous heroine of ‘Mrs Crasthorpe’, for instance, “was a woman of fifty-nine who declared herself to be forty-five because forty-five was what she felt”. Inevitably, their tragedies are inherent in their foibles. In William Trevor’s stories, truth is inferred, worried over, hinted at, seen from a distance. In ‘Making Conversation’, a young woman has to break bread with the wife of her stalker, charting a path between truth (they didn’t have an affair) and hurt (your husband is a stalker!), “some pain,” she tells us, “too dull to be worthy of a romantic shroud.”
Whilst Trevor (an 88 year old man when he died) does not engage so much with the frightening world we see around us every day (there is little politics, no social media), his dramas are timeless. In ‘The Women’, the story that closes out the book, over the course of about 30 pages, we hear from an adopted daughter, her father, her possible mother, and glimpse the horrors perpetrated by the Church in Ireland during the 20th century. Which demonstrates, as Trevor’s stories have demonstrated time and again over the decades, his great frugality, his intelligence, his eye for detail, his care, his sympathy, the ease with which he can pass from tenderness to terror. There are stories here that could have been novels – such as ‘An Idyll in Winter’, which Julian Fellowes would drag out over 8 seasons, concerning, as it does, a wealthy young woman and the teacher who offers her something previously missed, who intersect, once more, when the two of them are older only to discover that whatever it was they saw in each other, their moment was missed somehow during the time they spent apart. Similarly, ‘The Crippled Man’ – which tells of rural home improvements and possible murder or fraud – could have happily given Roddy Doyle or Ross Raisin a novel’s worth of good time.
As you’d expect, the stories are great, so great that there are times you forget you are reading a book called Last Stories. There are times when you lose yourself in the characters, in the detail, in what is happening. You are just reading stories by William Trevor and all is well with the world. And then one or the other of the stories ends and you emerge once more into a world where there will be no more new stories and you feel sad again. Still, the stories exist, and there are a lot of them and they can be read again and again, and there are novels (we have only read 5 of his 14 novels), have not even started on the novellas, plays, nonfiction and children’s book. There is a lot of William Trevor left, for us, for you. That is something. It’s a lot.
Any Cop?: There’s no getting away from the sadness of this book, but it is every bit as good as you would want a collection of William Trevor’s short stories to be.