Sebastian Shakespeare

Brief Encounters

A Bit on the Side

By

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‘I HAVE BEEN re-reading now the short stories of Somerset Maugham,’ remarks a character in this new collection. ‘Superior to his novels I believe.’ Is the same true of the works of William Trevor? Although a fine novelist, Trevor is a superior short-story writer, and is widely regarded as one of the greatest living exponents of the form. He is on a different plane from his contemporaries. The themes of his latest are adultery and private passion. His characters lead ordinary lives – they are fishermen, priests, schoolchildren, accountants, waiters – and all are trying to bridge the gap of loneliness. The author leads us into the recesses of the human heart with the precision of a surgeon and the eloquence of a poet. As usual these stories are models of concision, both exquisitely crafted and minutely observed. Details of speech and quirks of behaviour are distilled down to their essence. In the opening tale, ‘Sitting with the Dead’, a newly bereaved widow contemplates a future without her husband. ‘The light in the room was dim; he’d been particular about low-wattage electric bulbs … She wondered what she’d do when another bulb went, either here or somewhere else, if she would replace it with a stronger one or if low-wattage light was part of her now.’ Every character is bathed in the same soft glow. This is a book of shadows, evasions, half-truths and lies, in which reticence is the keynote. Some characters, like the aforementioned widow, are said to resemble ghosts; others, like the scullery maid in ‘The Dancing-Master’s Music’, hear ghostly music all around them.

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