ETA: A basic assumption of this review has been rather conclusively blown out of the water in the comments: somehow, I’d managed completely to misremember 2009’s Booker shortlist. Go me! Still, Love and Summer is still a deeply decent read…
Ever since John Self read and rated William Trevor’s Love and Summer last year, I’ve been wanting to get around to reading it. To some extent it was knocked back by reading 2009’s Booker shortlist – deeply unfair on it, as was its exclusion from that august company. It is a tender and clear-sighted tale of a youthful love affair in the small Irish village of Rathmoye. Its setting is indeterminate, Rathmoye’s stifling inter-connectedness as likely today as it might have been in the 1950s, which feels the closest fit if we were forced to choose one. The best we get is the clue that the novel takes place “some years after the middle of the last century”. The summer of the title is certainly seasonal – events take place over a few months, and end at the onset of autumn – but the closeness and stretched quality of both personal relationships and time exhibited in Rathmoye echo the qualities of uncomfortable, but lazy, days.
All of which is to suggest that Love and Summer is a quite careful novel: it is intricately plotted and intimately characterised, and even the most initially extraneous detail will, in the intensely shared environment of Rathmoye, prove significant. There is a Jamesian aspect to the novel, then – all internal monologue and pained interiority – which calls to mind Trevor’s countryman Colm Tóibín, and indeed Love and Summer reminded me distinctly of the latter’s Brooklyn, a novel which did manage to make last year’s Booker shortlist. Despite criticisms of 2009’s clutch (it was all ‘historical fiction’ and thus rather limited, apparently), it seemed to me that the novels were actually quite separate in time and approach; and so, surely, it was a straight contest between Trevor and Tóibín, two writers stumbling upon similar times and travails.
It’s a shame Brooklyn won out. Not because it is a bad novel – in fact, it’s exquisitely observed, and as John Mullan is noting in the Guardian at the moment, expertly executed. But Love and Summer, which most resembles the Irish scenes that bookend Brooklyn, achieves in its narrower focus a far greater versimilitude: its village gossip isn’t a caricature, its tortured pasts are equally torturously revealed, rather than slap-dashed across the page in the brief scenes allowed them. There’s something about the way in which Trevor slowly – again, carefully – reconstructs the pained histories he hints at from the very first page which makes their awful tragedy all the more acute.
Most interestingly, the way in which his character deal with this acuity is to disassociate themselves from the past. Some, such as the main female character, Ellie, can barely remember their past, their recalled childhood spent in the stasis of a convent; others, such as Miss Connulty or Ellie’s husband, Dillahan, are in denial or refutation of their pasts, suppressing their previous selves and attempting, with varying degress of success, to craft a new identity – almost a new person, a denial of self. Rathmoye, of course, cannot – will not – forget, and this puts it at odds with the novel’s strangest character, Orpen Wren, a former archivist whose memory now plays cruel tricks upon him, mixing past, present and future into an incomprehensible – and oddly comforting – melange.
Into this strained atmosphere appears the male half of Ellie’s summer of love, Florian. An Irish-Italian semi-bohemian of dubious motivations, he is at first introduced as a kind of hero, but ultimately might seem to some readers a picture of irresponsibility. The passion he arouses in Ellie is never quite recipocrated by him – although he certainly acts on whatever feelings he does experience – and the love affair of the title is something less than the sun-kissed idyll we might expect. Indeed, Trevor’s key success is to defy expectations: the withered and embittered village matriarch Miss Connulty is one of the novel’s most humane characters; Dillahan’s moment of revelation spins on an axis quite different to the one we are led to predict. The novel finds a way to judge each character on their own terms. One might suspect a novel such as this, written by a prose master such as Trevor, of concentrating on a perfection of the commonplace. It goes one better.