William Trevor has long been one of the best writers of short stories in the English language. As THE CHILDREN OF DYNMOUTH shows, he also is pretty good when he extends his range to novels.
Dynmouth is a small town of just over 4,000 inhabitants nestled on the Dorset coast. It seems to be an ordinary English town, and certainly those of its citizens who appear in the novel - with one singular exception - seem to be ordinary English folk. But, in the hands of William Trevor, no one is truly ordinary. Everyone has his or her secret, some merely foibles, others dank and dark stains of character. Take, for example, the Abigails: they have been married thirty-six years, and in their retirement Edith devotes herself to Meals on Wheels charity work, while Gordon, known as the Commander because he served at that naval rank for five months during World War II, strolls the beach and goes for an ocean swim daily. They would seem to be a picture of British rectitude. But, it turns out, Gordon has never been able to consummate their marriage; instead, he is attracted to young boys.
The one exception to the outward bland conventionality of the citizens of Dynmouth is Timothy Gedge, a lad of fifteen from a broken home. Gedge is a loner, who spies and eavesdrops on the folks of Dynmouth, and in the process ferrets out their secrets and then tries to blackmail them into cooperating with him in his bizarre fantasy of performing a tawdry comedic act, a la Benny Hill, at the town's annual "Spot the Talent" contest. Gedge is a superb psychologist and at the same time he is loathsome. Some come to the conclusion that he is possessed. Whatever, he is one of the creepiest characters I have encountered in fiction.
On the level of technique, THE CHILDREN OF DYNMOUTH is an accomplished work. But what does it mean? Right now (and I surely will continue to think about it over the coming days and weeks, for it portends to be more haunting than most novels) about all I can say is that it is an unsettling black comedy based on a rather jaundiced view of the human condition.
At the end of the novel, the carnival comes to Dynmouth, and it begins to broadcast over its loudspeakers the upbeat pop tunes of the day, and the day being sometime in 1974, the tune that echoes throughout Dynmouth is "Downtown" by Petula Clark ("The lights are much brighter there / You can forget all your troubles, forget all your cares."). The last line of the novel is: "'How can you lose?' sang Petula Clark. `Things will be great.'" The irony is a tad heavy-handed.