‘Do you know why you are doing this?’ he asked, and Katherine hesitated, then shook her head, although she did know.
As much as I would like to participate 100% in Cathy & Kim’s #WilliamTrevor2023 reading event, I knew that it would be an impossible ask. As much as I adore William Trevor, to read every single short story in my two volume collection in one year, would be too much. For me and for you!
Twenty-odd years ago, when a dear friend first recommended Trevor to me, I devoured his first volume of short stories in a short period of time, often reading several of them back to back in one sitting. They are now all a pleasant but indistinct blur.
I didn’t want to make the same mistake this time around.
Since then I have learnt to read short story collections one story at a time. It’s a slow way to proceed, but far more satisfying in the end. I tend to remember the individual stories better, and certainly since my blogging days, writing about them individually helps to cement them in my memory.
For January Kim decided to write about the 2007 short story collection, Cheating at Canasta. It contains twelve stories. Kim chose to focus on five of them. Knowing that I wouldn’t be able to read all twelve this month, I chose to focus on the stories that Kim did not, to add some variety to the discussion.
The first is The Room, the second story in the collection.
The Room is one of Trevor’s England stories. Set in London, we first meet Katherine just after commencing an affair. The room is the small bedsit that the man in question has recently let after separating from his own wife. Katherine is still married to Phair, her husband of nine years. Her reason for having an affair was to discover for herself ‘what it felt like to deceive‘.
As Trevor carefully reveals Katherine’s story, we learn that Phair’s earlier affair was discovered when the woman in question was found murdered and Phair was charged with her murder. The evidence, however, was slim and circumstantial and the case was thrown out of court by the judge.
Naturally this had an impact on their marriage.
There was still love, but tempered by blame, guilt and fear. They continued on, happy enough, but something was missing (I would have said ‘trust’ but Trevor doesn’t seem to bring that element into the equation). When Katherine suddenly lost her job though, unwanted memories and thoughts began to creep in. For nine years there had been ‘restraint. There’d been no asking to be told, no asking for promises that the truth was what she heard….while work for both of them allowed restraint, there had been silence in their ordinary exchanges...’
It was at this point that Katherine realised a decision had to be made.
The reason I ended up reading this story twice was because I misread this part of the story. It was only when reading a review by another blogger that I realised I had missed a significant moment. After six months with her lover, Katherine realised that enough was enough – it was now over. But as she was walking slowly home, she finally understood that her marriage was also over.
Somehow I missed that sentence first time, which left me feeling rather confused about the ending. The reread cleared everything up beautifully, sadly, inevitably.
The best that love could do was not enough.
Once again, Trevor has written a deceptively complex character study. One where every word is carefully considered and placed. If you miss or misread just one, the whole meaning can be changed. It now makes me wonder how many stories I misread when I raced through the first collection twenty-odd years ago!
In 1989 in The Paris Review, The Art of Fiction No. 108, Trevor compared his writing process with painting. When asked to define the short story he replied:
I think it is the art of the glimpse. If the novel is like an intricate Renaissance painting, the short story is an impressionist painting. It should be an explosion of truth. Its strength lies in what it leaves out just as much as what it puts in, if not more. It is concerned with the total exclusion of meaninglessness. Life, on the other hand, is meaningless most of the time. The novel imitates life, where the short story is bony, and cannot wander. It is essential art.
Like an impressionist painting, it is very possible at first glimpse, to not see everything contained within a William Trevor short story. The mind’s eye needs time and space to see the whole picture, to sit with the emotional intricacies so that you can accept the surprising ‘explosion of truth‘ when it comes. As I found out with this particular story, it certainly does not pay to ‘wander‘!
- Read with Cathy @746 Books & Kim @Reading Matters for their reading event – A Year With William Trevor #WilliamTrevor2023
Title: The Room Author: William Trevor First published in Irish Pages | Vol. 3, No. 1, The Literary World (Spring/Summer, 2005), pp. 41-49 (9 pages) Then published in Cheating at Canasta 2007 And in my 2011 edition of William Trevor Selected Stories Penguin Books pp. 448-457 Date Read: 17 January 2023 Reread: 25 January 2023
- This post was written in the area we now call the Blue Mountains within the Ngurra [country] of the Dharug and Gundungurra peoples.
14 thoughts on “The Room | William Trevor #IRLshortstory”
This is a good example of the way Trevor gives his characters moral dilemmas with which to contend. If your partner/husband was accused of murder, would you support him or distance yourself from him? Thanks for your excellent dissection of this story… it is certainly one that has stuck with me (and I raced through this collection!)
I’m really enjoying the #slowread of each story this time around. And yes, Trevor certainly loves a good moral dilemma!
You are so right about short story collections becoming a blur. I read Cheating at Canasta ages ago when I was bingeing on William Trevor with everything they had at the library, and I don’t remember them.
But his novels, ah, that’s different. I haven’t looked yet, but I’m hoping that I have some respectable reviews in my journals of The Story of Lucy Gault and others that I can publish via my Reviews from The Archive.
But I have bought a new one that I haven’t read, just in case!
I’m pretty sure I read a couple of his novels too, pre-blog, but unlike you I have no records from that time, and cannot even remember which ones I read! I’d love to read more, but trying really hard to only read what’s on my TBR atm and not add anything new re backlist books.
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Stick with it, Brona. If the TBR is bothering you, it’s time to tackle it.
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“The art of the glimpse” is a perfect way to characterise the ideal short story. It’s why I find it hard to review or discuss collections of more than a handful of pieces as I want to render a good account of each gem to give it its due, just as you’ve done here; coincidentally I’ve just reviewed an early H G Wells short story as there was quite a lot to say about it!
Kim did a lovely job with the Cheating at Canasta collection, focusing on the stories featuring young adults and children. Unintentionally, I seemed to have picked the ones featuring adultery!
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Maybe that’s my problem with short story collections. I also read them all at once.
I have forgotten all the Alice Munro stories I read about 12 years ago – same problem – I read each collection all at once and everything has blurred. Although I seem to recall a lot of car accidents?
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Me too! I don’t remember any car accidents, though.
That’s good advice, about breaking short story collections up. I have Tsiolkas’ Merciless Gods, on Audible, in my truck, and I find it works quite well to listen to one story and then go on to something else.
It took me a long time to learn not to gobble up short story collections all at once and unfortunately Trevor was a writer that I did that to at first. I very much agree with you on how important it is to read his stories carefully, the subtleties in character and story are so paramount.