Suspense & redemption: The world of William Trevor

Chris Chan

William Trevor is one of the world’s most efficient writers. His novels are short but strikingly rich. I doubt that the category of ‘suspense writer’ applies to him, yet he has a gift for integrating and accelerating suspense throughout his novels, building up to an utterly unexpected, unconventional, yet thoroughly satisfying climax. The best way for me to describe his writing style is to say that he writes the same way that Alfred Hitchcock films. I hope that this comparison gives a satisfactory impression of his prose.

I was first introduced to Trevor in high school English with his book Felicia’s Journey. I am grateful for this. I would have missed most of the subtleties and the deftly hidden messages in the text had I not had my teacher’s guidance and the chance to discuss it with my classmates. Trevor is a master at condensing a pivotal plot point into a single sentence. His writing commands your complete attention. Blink and you’ll miss something really important and much of the ensuing plot won’t make as much sense as it should. Felicia’s Journey is one of the most intelligent thrillers I have ever read. It knows the conventions and clichs of the genre, but rather than pandering to these boundaries, or alternatively, parodying them, Felicia’s Journey approaches every expectation on its own terms and advances in a manner that is consistently true and surprising.

The title character is a frightened yet determined young woman. She is also pregnant, and is traveling from Ireland to England in the hopes of finding the father. Her success at this endeavor is, not surprisingly, negligible. Along her travels she meets the seemingly benevolent Mr. Hilditch, who offers her assistance when she is most desperate. Gradually, it becomes clear that at least one of the characters is in danger, perhaps even mortal peril. The source of this danger and its target are nebulous for most of the book, but once the hidden lives of the protagonists and the supporting characters are revealed the novel’s endgame plays out with clarity and realism. You may think that you know what will happen from my little description. You might be right, but at best you’ll only be half right. Trevor is more interested in his characters’ psychology and motives than in shock value or cheap thrills. There’s also heavy stress on the villain’s attempts at redemption. The conclusion isn’t the happiest one that you could imagine, but it feels more genuine than the standard artificial Hollywood ending. You don’t read this book for the final twist. It’s the journey that matters, not the destination. Very different in tone and ending, My House in Umbria is a simultaneously more lucid and more confounding than Felicia’s Journey. Umbria is narrated by the enigmatic romance novelist Emily Delahunty. Formerly involved in a tempestuous and checkered lifestyle, Miss Delahunty has retired to a quiet Italian villa to write and play hostess to amiable travelers. We know very little about Miss Delahunty, mostly because she provides the reader with all of the information about herself. It is clear that Emily Delahunty is not her real name, that her childhood was criminally unhappy, and that she has been involved in numerous turbulent relationships. At least it seems clear. Miss Delahunty has a knack for improving the truth, adding or neglecting facts when it will lead to her favorite thing, a happy ending.

One day, Miss Delahunty’s life is changed forever when the train she is riding on is bombed by terrorists. Miss Delahunty survives with minor injuries, but everyone else is killed, except for three people: an elderly military man, a German youth, and a shy little girl. Miss Delahunty takes the survivors in to stay at her villa. She enjoys getting to know them, but she enjoys theorizing about their pasts and inventing futures for them even more. There’s no payoff or surprise ending, only brilliant narration and memorable characters. We may never know what’s really going on, but we can enjoy Miss Delahunty’s interpretation of events.

As per popular request, I shall report that both of these books have been adapted for the visual media. Felicia’s Journey has been adapted into a well-made film starring Bob Hoskins in an unsettling and spellbinding performance, and My House In Umbria was recently adapted into a television movie, at this writing unseen by me (although that will probably change soon), starring Dame Maggie Smith in an Emmy-winning performance.

That is my introduction to William Trevor, one of the most interesting and under-publicized contemporary writers it has been my pleasure to come across. By all means read his books, but read them slowly, carefully, and if possible, with a group of friends.

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