The Children of Dynmouth is probably the most impressive of William Trevor’s novels that I have read so far. At the heart of this slim novel, set in the seaside town of Dynmouth, is a fabulous creation in fifteen-year old Timothy Gedge, an awkward, insinuating boy who spends his time hanging around the town and watching its residents in a manner which is often just a little too close for comfort.
Timothy, whose father has long since absconded and whose mother and sister take little interest in him, spends his days wandering around Dynmouth trying to ingratiate himself with its residents. He does odd jobs for the Abigail’s, turns up at every funeral officiated by the vicar Quentin Featherston and wrangles his way into everyone’s business, whether they like it or not.
‘Dynmouth people can’t mind their own business,’ she heard Timothy Gedge saying. ‘They’re always like that, gassing their heads off in a public shop. The best place for Dynmouth people is in their coffins.’ Laughter rippled from him, quite gently, softly.
It is Easter in Dynmouth and the summer ‘season’ is about to start. Ring Amusements are gearing up for re-opening and the annual Spot the Talent competition is on the horizon. Timothy sees this as his chance to escape the town and is rehearsing a comedy sketch, based on the serial killer George Joseph Smith; a performance that he hopes will launch a career in comic impersonations and save him from a future at the sand paper factory.
In order to perform his rather distasteful sketch, Timothy needs props and what begins as a comic attempt to get the residents of Dynmouth to provide him with curtains, a bath and some wedding dresses, soon turns malevolent, as Timothy resorts to blackmail to get what he wants.
His constant spying and prying into the lives of his community gives him the means to threaten people, from the aging homosexual who is hiding behind a loveless marriage to the local publican whose extra-marital affairs have been carried out a little too obviously, even with Timothy’s own mother.
Timothy’s antics take a particularly cruel turn when he attempts to get a wedding dress from two children in the town, Stephen and Kate, who have become stepbrother and stepsister by the marriage of their parents. Timothy uses the little knowledge he has of the family to suggest that the death of Stephen’s mother was not all that it seemed, a lie that has the potential to tear the family apart.
What Trevor does wonderfully in this book is to depict a character whose malice has grown from his chronic loneliness. The only time Timothy has ever had any positive attention is when he told jokes in class, so he sees his comic routine, as ill thought out as it is, as a way to improve his life. He is an undoubted malevolent force, using gossip and innuendo to get what he wants, but it is hard to see him as completely evil, or to deny him some degree of sympathy.
The boy would stand in courtrooms with his smile. He would sit in the dark offices of social workers. He would be incarcerated in the cells of different gaols. By looking at him now you could sense that future, and his eyes reminded you that he had not asked to be born.
Like Timothy’s stage show, Trevor juxtaposes the comic with the dark, showing how Timothy blithely uncovers the unpleasant secrets lurking just beneath the surface of this respectable town and, as with previous novels, Trevor is adept at exploring the darkness behind the everyday, without resorting to melodrama. Instead of dealing with the secrets that arise, the residents involved bring an end to Timothy’s fantasy and return to living the same lives as always and with one fantasy gone, Timothy turns his attention to another and creates a potential secret life for himself.
Trevor hints at the possibility of redemption, but his writing is too nuanced to give any definitive answers, meaning that Timothy cannot just been seen as a villain or a victim.
The Children of Dynmouth is masterpiece of understatement and tension and a skilfully written character study, which was a deserving winner of the Whitbread Prize and a place on the Booker Prize shortlist in 1976.
Jacqui at Jacqui’s Wine Journal and Ali at HeavenAli have also written great reviews of The Children of Dynmouth and I have been so impressed with this novel that I am tempted to do a Readathon of his work next year!
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!