The Boarding House by William Trevor #WilliamTrevor2023

I build that I may destroy…

The Boarding House, William Trevor’s follow-up to The Old Boys, is another darkly comic character study where the irony is pitched so perfectly that broad comedy and creeping horror are seamlessly juxtaposed. There is a cumulative strangeness to this deadpan tale, which marries ingenuity, strong pacing and dark humour to great effect.

As the novel opens, William Wagner Bird proprietor of the titular boarding house is dying. A one-time travel agent, Mr Bird has never married and has no surviving family, save his residents who live in rooms decorated in a ‘rich gravy shade’ all of which have seen better days. Like Bird, each of his residents are lonely people, all handpicked because Bird recognises something of himself in them, all having ‘neither family nor personal ties’.

‘Well, at least I have done a good thing – I have brought them all together; and though they are solitary spirits, they have seen in my boarding-house that there are others who have been plucked from the same bush.’

His residents are, indeed, a motley crew. There is Mr. Scribbin, obsessed with his gramophone recordings of trains; sad Miss Cave, unable to escape her dead mother; sweetly fragile Miss Clerricot who feels “embarrassed to be alive” and wishes for amorous adventure; the miserable hypochondriac Venables; the Nigerian exile, Mr. Obd whose unrequited love for a woman he played ping-pong with fourteen years earlier has resulted in him writing 1,248 letters to her and the outspoken and sexually frustrated Major Eele, whose penchant for strip shows is the result of his friendship with Bird.

Bird is not simply a kindly benefactor, having spied on and kept daily notes about all his residents. This Lord of Misrule then decides to create more mischief after his death. He leaves the boarding house to the two remaining residents who hate each other the most. Studdy is a petty criminal who steals from old people and writes blackmail letters while Nurse Clock is a formidable carer of old folk. The pair despise one another and are the least likely to successfully run a boarding house together.

What Bird could not have anticipated is that Clock and Studdy come up with a plan to turn the boarding house into a profitable home for the elderly, meaning they must get rid of each resident one by one, contravening Bird’s will. What follows is a series of set pieces, each as hilarious as they are heart breaking, as Clock and Studdy try to carry out their plan. The donation of Bird’s clothes to charity descends into farcical slapstick while Miss Clerricot’s yearning for romance is manifested in the worst way, when she takes an ill-advised trip to Leeds with her married boss. Major Eele sparks up a possible romance with a woman he mistakenly thinks is a prostitute and the poor lovelorn Mr Obd comes to a realisation that will have devastating consequences for all the residents of the boarding house.

Throughout the novel, Bird’s presence remains, flying above the narrative like his name would suggest, as residents think they can see or hear the man who has set their fates in motion from beyond the grave.

Structurally, the book is fascinating, but even more impressive is the cinematic manner in which his narrative voice travels, skipping from person to person without ever losing focus. It also contains subtle social commentary and psychological insight, addressing issues of class, economics and marriage with a very light touch and painting a very vivid picture of London at a particular time. It is very funny, albeit in the darkest way, and has a tremendous pace, Dickensian in its scope and filmic in its delivery.

Kim at Reading Matters and Jacqui at JacquiWine’s Journal have also reviewed The Boarding House.

Next month why not join me as I read The Love Department by William Trevor, published in 1966. Alternatively, Kim will be reading his 1971 novel Miss Gomez and the Brethren. You can check out our full schedule for the year on our launch post, or simply read any book by William Trevor and use the hashtag #williamtrevor2023

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Cathy746books View All →

I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!

20 Comments Leave a comment

      • Yea, I reckon all the early novels follow this structure. It will be interesting to see at what point in his career he tried something different. Maybe it could be argued that in his later novels he simply replaced the shared living facilities (boarding houses, hotels, etc) with villages…? He does like creating kooky characters with funny little ways and traits. He was obviously fascinated by people. Probably would have made a good journalist!


  1. I put The Boarding House on my list after reading Jacqui’s review but should I read The Old Boys first? I haven’t even started with William Trevor yet and I feel like I’m missing out!


  2. I read this a few months ago. It is a brilliant character study, most of them not very likeable. I do love boarding houses in fiction, they make great settings for exploring different people.


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