The Irish author William Trevor can be deceptive. He writes his tales about Irish women in a vernacular that would seem at home in a 19th-century Romance novel. You think you've entered the pages of Henry James or Thomas Hardy. But underneath the carefully-chosen language, and a writing style that matches the green rolling hills and bustling seaports of his native Cork, Trevor's characters contain and endure all the horrors of modern life, as diverse and topical as terrorist bombings and mental illness.
Two Lives, Trevor's 1991 offering, contains a pair of novellas, Reading Turgenev and My House in Umbria. The first is about Mary Louise Dallon, a young Protestant girl who consents to a "marriage of convenience" with a much older Catholic man, only to find herself in love with her ailing cousin, Robert. She is tortured daily by her husband's two old maid sisters, and finds refuge in the passages of Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev which Robert reads to her in a graveyard.
The situation may seem very old-fashioned, but watch how Trevor's plot unfolds like a well-tended piece of cloth: readers quickly become wrapped up in the life of Mary Louise, and anyone who has ever been accused of "burying their nose in a book" will understand her fate.
The second novella concerns Mrs. Delahunty, the owner of an Italian guest house in My House in Umbria, another woman character whose daily survival depends on burying the bad memories and experiences of her life. As she ruminates about the plot of her next Romance novel aboard a tourist train, a bomb goes off, killing half the passengers. The survivors find a refuge in her home, including an orphaned American girl who may hold the key to their psychic recovery.
In one sense, the two novellas in Two Lives are about the strange uses people make of literature in their lives. It can be a life preserver for some, an escape hatch for others. Some readers may have trouble with Trevor's style, which occasionally jumps from present consciousness to filtered memory with no intervening transition, like Mary Louise, whose life switches channels between the present moment and her remembered scraps of Russian literature quite erratically. Mrs. Delahunty in My House in Umbria also spends her time alternating between real events and the plot of her next novel. It takes getting used to. But isn't consciousness like this sometimes, the intrusions of real life dovetailing unevenly with our renegade thoughts? Trevor's memorable characters seem as though they live by the rules of an earlier era, but they are also gifted with a hard, native common sense. It's this trait that wins the day, or helps them persist through very difficult lives. Not to mention that William Trevor is among the finest writers living today, in touch with mysteries of both depth and shadow.
The question of faith runs through both novellas, and with it a theme so common in Irish literature and music, from James Joyce's The Dead to Sinead O'Connor's I Am Stretched On Your Grave: that of a devotion that outlasts death. What kind of faith can compete with a love from beyond the grave? This question causes one character to muse: "The dead become nothing when you weary of doing their living for them. You pick and choose among the dead; the living are thrust upon you."
In Two Lives, faith not only creates mysteries, it can produce minor miracles. In William Trevor's completely believable world, mixed in with the old-fashioned, there are strong doses of the new, the horrible and the tragic. Thankfully, there are also flashes of hope and kindness.