The Hill Bachelors by William Trevor #williamtrevor23

In an interview in 1989, William Trevor called the short story ‘an art of the glimpse’ whose ‘strength lies in what it leaves out’. Trevor has perfected this glimpse, and in The Hill Bachelors (2000) has created a collection that thrives on nuance, indirection and suggestion.

These twelve stories all offer an insightful illumination of quiet lives, thrown off course by circumstance, self-betrayal and the deeds of strangers, only to return to an uncomfortable equilibrium. The strength of the collection is in what Trevor holds back; he trusts his reader to sense the truth of each story.  

Fragments of intuition were their conversation, real beneath the unreal words. No one else would understand…

Moving from Ireland to England and France, Trevor skilfully dissects the thoughts of his characters, most of whom have a reticence that keeps them in the dark as much as it does those around them. The silence between his characters says as much as the words they do utter.

Trevor’s novels often feature a predatory or outsider figure who sets their sights on an innocent or trusting member of society and several of these stories follow that theme.  In ‘Against the Odds’, a Belfast con-woman – lying low in a country town – spots an easy mark in a lonely turkey farmer called Blakely. When she gets what she wants from him and moves on, she finds that she cannot forget this solitary and circumspect man.

The nine-year-old child actor at the centre of ‘Good News’ is hoping that her role in a film will bring her estranged parents back together again. She is playing the part of the victim of a paedophile, but his motives are never explained to her, so when the actor playing her abuser crosses a line in real life, she is unable to comprehend the danger she is in. A married couple in ‘A Friend in the Trade’ are planning a move from London to the country, and are amazed and horrified when an  acquaintance who has been calling in to see them for years, assumes that he will move with them and live in one of their outhouses.

There is also a sense in this collection of secrets that are being barely kept, or truths being wilfully hidden in plain sight. Through an economic use of words and a consistent tone of gentle tolerance, he reveals these secrets slowly and carefully, making them more dramatic than any abrupt sensationalism. The opening story – ‘Three People’ – is a masterclass in what is not being told, focusing as it does on Vera a single woman in her early forties who lives with her father. They are visited every day by Sidney, a man who does odd jobs around the house for them and it soon transpires that the three are tied together by a horrible secret, whereby Vera has committed a crime and Sidney has provided an alibi for her.

‘The Mourning’ is one of a few stories that deals directly with the Troubles and follows Liam Pat, a young man, who takes a job on a construction in London only to find out that he has been unwittingly conscripted into the IRA and must plant an explosive device in an office building in the City.

He would carry the secret on to the site every morning. He would walk through the streets with it, a power in him where there’d been nothing before.

‘Death of a Professor’ begins like an extension of Trevor’s early novel The Old Boys opening as it does with a drinks party in a University department. A prank has been played on one of the professors whereby his obituary has been published in four major papers, despite the fact that he hasn’t died. His much younger wife tries to hide the papers from him, not out of embarrassment as has been suggested by his colleagues, who feel she has married him for his position, but out of the depth of her love for him.

This is one of Trevor’s great gifts – a sleight of hand whereby a story appears to be travelling in one direction – but ends up at an entirely different destination. He has the ability to surprise, to lead the reader into a story and then turn the narrative on its head through a deft handling of plot and a considered sense of control.

Not all the stories here fully convince. ‘The Virgin’s Gift’ in which a monk living in solitude receives visions from the Virgin Mary feels implausible, as if the monk’s blind faith had not completely captured Trevor’s imagination. ‘Low Sunday, 1950’ which tells the story of siblings living uncomfortably together in the aftermath of their parents accidental killing feels like a stock Irish story, even if it is beautifully written.

What strikes most throughout all these stories is the way in which Trevor’s characters embrace an acceptance of what life has dealt them. They do not want pity, although they give it, but are determined to see decisions through no matter what the consequence.  

This is beautifully displayed in the standout title story ‘The Hill Bachelors’. A young man, Paulie, returns to his family’s remote Irish farm following the death of his father, knowing that, as the only bachelor left among the children, he will be expected to stay on with his mother and work the farm. The realisation that no women want to marry him and live such a solitary and hard existence comes quickly, but he bears it, because he has to.

Guilt was misplaced, goodness hardly came into it. … Enduring, unchanging, the hills had waited for him, claiming one of their own.

With such care for his characters and the modesty of his prose, Trevor has created a vivid portrait of lonely people, trying to make the best of the unexpected and changing lives they find themselves inhabiting. His characters are recognisable and universal and his skill in the structure of the short story is unparalleled.

You can read the opening story of this collection – Three People – online at the NYT archive here.

Next month why not join me as I read Nights at the Alexandra by William Trevor, a novella published in 1987. Alternatively, Kim will be reading his 1973 novel The Children of Dynmouth. 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

Irish Literature The 746 WilliamTrevor 2023

Cathy746books View All →

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

9 Comments Leave a comment

  1. I’ve not been keeping up but I’m still hoping to read at least one Trevor this year. These short stories sound excellent, and I love the way you’ve written about them. It’s always a challenge to write coherently about collections.


  2. Your description of the short stories is wonderful, it’s so difficult to describe them well. There’s so much packed into those spaces he leaves and his subtle sleight of hand that turns a story is easy to miss if attention isn’t being paid, but is used masterfully. A lovely review!


  3. This is going to be such a lovely year, revisiting all the Trevors I’ve read, and discovering ones I didn’t know about.
    But how amazing too, that one author can justify a whole year of reading, like this. They don’t make ’em like Trebor any more!


  4. Great review, Cathy. He’s so good at taking those quiet lives and disrupting them in unusual, but wholly believable, ways. The titular story is also in Nights at the Alexandra (as an added extra in the Penguin edition I read a few years ago).


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