William Trevor's characters walk in shadows, moving with the somnambulistic pace of the half-alive. It is his style to remain detached, writing as one observing from an opaque distance, even when he is deep in the minds of his often-disturbed characters. This works to haunting effect in Felicia's Journey, where Trevor dispassionately portrays a monster, and in The Story of Lucy Gault, where epic political conditions mirror household tragedies. But sometimes you ache for more connection -- you want the characters to look you in the eye, instead of constantly shifting their gaze or changing the subject. Death in Summer holds you just outside arm's length, preventing you from shaking the characters awake.
Death in Summer, set in a small village on the Cumbrian coast of western England, opens with a funeral, one of three deaths that involves the residents of the once-stately Quincunx Manor in a short, disturbing summer. Thaddeus Davenant buries his young wife, Letitia, whom he acknowledges he never loved. His sorrow at his failure to reciprocate her devotion is at least as great as his widower's bereavement. Letitia leaves him her fortune. She also leaves behind Georgina, their infant daughter for whom Thaddeus develops a fierce and tender love.
Letitia's mother, Mrs. Iveson, arrives at Quincunx to help Thaddeus find a nanny. After a series of unsatisfying interviews with unsuitable young women, Mrs. Iveson determines she is the best caregiver for her granddaughter. She takes up residence at the manor; besides Thaddeus and his daughter, the other residents are an elderly couple who have served as caretakers of Quincunx for many years.
One of the young women interviewed for nanny is Pettie, a street kid who has found refuge with a sweet, slightly simple, pal Albert. They are former residents of a corrupt group home that sheltered orphans. It also prostituted them. Pettie recalls her "Sunday Uncles" in passages that are sickening in their subtlety. Pettie speaks of their affections with longing; she is starved for love.
Pettie becomes fixated on Quincunx, certain that there was some misunderstanding and she was really meant to be Georgina's nanny. She returns in secret to the manor over several weeks, sleeping in the abandoned greenhouse, observing the residents' routines and befriending Rosie, Thaddeus's hapless dog.
A moment of opportunity presents itself on a warm, sleepy afternoon and with an impulse borne of loneliness, Pettie's obsession becomes criminal. The tragedy that follows takes multiple victims. Some emerge physically unharmed, but none is left untouched. Albert, Trevor's foil for the hollow and broken characters who inhabit Quincunx, takes on an almost Biblical role as angel, prophet, saint and savior.
It took me a couple of starts-stops to connect with this understated thriller. It takes the right state of mind to slip into Trevor's subtle, graceful prose. His writing feels out of a time long since passed; it is often a challenge to place the era of his stories. His characters speak in cadences and with tones that aren't unnatural, just not of the modern world. He metes out small clues. First you read of a car accident or someone turns on a television in their cold-water flat, then you realize girls are wearing mini-skirts, and eventually you catch a reference to turmoil in Croatia. So you know here, at least, you are in the mid-1990s. But how important is that, really? In Trevor's world of quiet menace, disappointment, violence and heartbreak are always present, redemption is fickle, but compassion is timeless.