Tea Is So Intoxicating – Mary Essex

The British Library, under the imprint The British Library Women Writers, has released some excellent looking titles recently, mostly books written by women in the early 20th century, which have largely been forgotten or sunk without a trace. I had already bought a couple of them – Mary Essex’s Tea Is So Intoxicating and Rose Macaulay’s Dangerous Ages, and based on my extremely enjoyable experience with the Essex novel, I plan to explore this series more.

Tea Is So Intoxicating, then, is a delightful comedy, a hilarious take on the challenges and pitfalls of running a tea-house in a quaint English village.

David Tompkins and his wife Germayne have arrived in the village of Wellhurst with dreams of opening a tea-house. The dream is more of David’s, who believes cooking is a simple affair if certain methods are followed. David is a retired Naval officer, and it is during a bout of illness that the idea of starting a new venture begins to take shape. What also gives David much confidence is his prior stint as an accountant at the Dolly Varden Cosy Tea Shops Ltd, although he has no practical experience of any kind on the actual running of a tea-house. But this is a point David refuses to acknowledge.

She [Germayne] was dubious about the success of the proposed tea-house. But, meanwhile, David had launched himself out into the thought of selling lunches packed ready to take on the road with you, teas in the garden, teas in the inglenook, teas you took away with you, or teas you took away inside you. In fact, it was a comprehensive plan, and it covered every line of resistance that man could offer. His flights of fancy took him into realms of the type of lunch that no hiker or biker wants, but that did not worry him in the least. He would educate them. Lobster mayonnaise in cartons, fresh salmon with cucumber discs, cut hyper-thin; smoked trout and cheese soufflé, trifle and pêches melba. He believed that he could make the wildest success of it all.

David wants the tea-house to be a classy affair, with the right china and ambience that attracts quality people and not the riff-raff.

The trouble was that these wretched country people did not understand how very first-class the place was going to be. Something ormolu. Something that was dignified and smart, nothing slapdash and likely to appeal to the scum. He was strongly against scum. His place was to be the best, providing the best and only for the best.

Meanwhile, David and Germayne set up residence in a cottage called Higgins-Bottom, a name David despises. He is hell bent on calling it Cherry Tree Cottage, but the villagers are having none of it and Higgins-Bottom stubbornly sticks. The Tompkinses are delighted with the prettiness of the cottage, although there are several practical drawbacks once they instill themselves there.

Essex also expertly weaves in brief backstories of both David and Germayne and how they end up as a couple into the main storyline. David was in a relationship with a woman who was not the marrying kind, an affair that dies a natural death. Germayne was earlier married to Digby, a wealthy man with a comfortable home, but quite set in his ways and also determined to turn Germayne into a new leaf. Both are ambivalent about parenthood, but end up having a daughter called Ducks. While motherhood continues to flummox Germayne, Digby finds himself thrilled to be a father despite his initial reservations. Doting immensely on Ducks, he spoils her silly, giving her free rein in the way she conducts herself. Feeling thoroughly stifled, and also because she considers Digby an insufferable bore, Germayne begins to see a way out when she meets David.

Romance blossoms between the two and Germayne divorces Digby to begin a new phase of life with David.

But with new beginnings come seemingly insurmountable challenges. First, is the capital required to set up the tea-house.  Despite his ambitions, David can’t cook to save his life. There’s this funny, wonderful set-piece in the earlier part of the novel, where wanting to tap into his friend George for investing into his venture, David invites him and his wife Gertrude to spend the weekend at their cottage. But it turns out to be a disaster. David concocts an elaborate menu for dinner, but botches it up. Breakfast is also a paltry affair where David serves omelettes “looking exactly like pieces of yellow window leather.” Obviously, asking an irritable and hungry man for money is hardly going to yield the desired result.

Miraculously, David manages to raise some money anyway, and the project gets going. Things considerably liven up, when Mimi, the cake-cook from Vienna (“ma poor Vienna”, as she calls it) makes an appearance. The men find her utterly charming. George, who did not want to have anything to do with the tea-house earlier, is now open to the idea of lending money, if Mimi’s going to be a permanent fixture. Even Colonel Blandish, a striking figure in the village with a forceful personality, comes around to the view that a tea-house will be a welcome addition to the village, a refreshing change from the overall stodginess that characterizes the place.

But there are strong dissidents. Mr and Mrs Percy, who run a desultory tea place of their own, are hostile because they fear the competition. Mrs Arbroath, lady of the manor, with her domineering personality and conservative views, thinks she runs the village and is dead set against the idea of a tea-house being set up that will attract ‘foreigners.’ To add fuel to the fire, rumours doing the rounds that David and Germayne are ‘not properly married’ only antagonize the residents further. As for Mimi, the women of the village, including Germayne, see right through her and consider her a bad influence.

Her pathetic, “I ‘ave no ‘ome, I ‘ave no love, I work ‘ard, but people misunderstand, and poor Mimi she go on struggle,” brought a round of applause from the gentlemen and a peculiar chilliness from the women, who had no patience with her at all.

 All these ingredients mixed together rustle up a scenario of complete chaos, and when the utterly spoilt Ducks shows up at the village all hell breaks loose.

Will the tea-house become a raging success despite all odds? Or, will David’s best laid plans go awry?

Keeping the comic elements aside, Tea Is So Intoxicating perfectly captures the dynamics of village life – how it is resistant to the winds of change, the petty jealousies and politics, the lives of villagers bandied about as fodder for gossip, and how everybody makes it their business to poke their nose into other people’s affairs.  The novel also examines what makes marriage work (is an exciting, adventurous spouse preferable to a dull, dependable one), and how divorce, though legal, was still frowned upon in conservative circles.

The novel also subtly explores the sweeping changes that were being felt across England post the war, particularly with the imminent prospect of the Labour government coming into power. Rationing was still an issue, and with aristocracy dwindling, people of Mrs Arbroath’s ilk could no longer maintain their mansions, having to sell parcels of land to raise money.

Mrs Arbroath steeled herself against what was coming to the world, and she clung on to her previous glory with two clutching hands…Her income had started to drop, which was the fault of that miserable surtax, which she had always thought was thieving, and she had had to sell a few fields. Instantly there had sprung up a pale mushroom growth of awful little houses, with asbestos roofs, which made her groan. She could do nothing about it, though she tried, and what was worse, she had never given up trying.

Essex is witty and displays a wicked sense of humour, and her writing is deliciously tongue-in-cheek. All the characters are wonderfully realized and unique with their own set of quirks – the obstinate David with his inability to think quickly, the self-assured but dull Digby who believes his Ducks has verve and personality, poor shabbily-dressed Germayne who is driven crazy by the two men in her life, the formidable but lonely Mrs Arbroath who loves to relentlessly argue and have her own way, the dashing Colonel Blandish who can impress women with his “Simla finesse and Poona technique”, and of course not to be left out, the enchanting Mimi in her dirndl skirt and plunging neckline who can set men’s hearts racing.

Tea is certainly intoxicating, as is Mary Essex’s wonderful novel!

Blast from the Past: The Blue Fox – Sjón (tr. Victoria Cribb)

The Blue Fox was the first book I read of the Icelandic author Sjón, and it blew me away. I read it many years ago, pre-blog, and while recently sorting out some of bookshelves, came upon it again. Suddenly, I felt like penning some thoughts on it.

The Blue Fox is a haunting, mythical novella, a blend of historical fiction and fairytale, with a very dreamlike vibe pulsing through it.

Set in Iceland in the late 1800s, the book opens with the protagonist Baldur Skuggason, a priest, hunting for the mystical blue fox on the whitened, frozen landscape in the dead of winter.

Blue foxes are so curiously like stones that it is a matter for wonder. When they lie beside them in winter there is no hope of telling them apart from the rocks themselves; indeed, they’re far trickier than white foxes, which always cast a shadow or look yellow against the snow.

In the throes of a howling wind and a raging blizzard, the action in this section feels like watching a slow motion film, as the Reverend stealthily moves across the snowy slopes in his quest to trap the enigmatic vixen. When he thinks he has spotted it, the Reverend fires his gun and sets in motion an avalanche that blankets the region.

Like a camera angle zooming to another scene, we are then transported to a different storyline, where the spotlight shines on Fridrik Fridjonsson, a naturalist, who must bury a young girl he has been caring for. This young girl was called Abba and was afflicted with Down’s Syndrome. The story, then, moves backwards to give us a glimpse of the girl’s life up to moment she dies. It’s a heartbreaking tale showcasing Abba’s hard life, and the heavy burden that Fridrik shoulders as he is unable to turn a blind eye to her suffering.

What is remarkable is how Sjón masterfully interweaves these two seemingly disparate storylines, to reveal a surprising twist in the final pages. 

With concise prose that is both gorgeous and sinister, The Blue Fox is an impressive interlacing of lives, a spellbinding fable that is part mystery part fairytale that displays the dark recesses of the human heart. In the Baldur sections, Sjón takes us inside the minds of the hunter and hunted as they try to outmaneuver each other. More often than not, the reader’s sympathies lie with the blue fox as we secretly hope it escapes the Reverend’s mode of attack. With the Abba story thread, the book delves into the themes of human cruelty, the stigma associated with a genetic disorders and how society is so unkind to people born with them.  

Sjón’s prose is as sparse, crisp and still as the glacial surroundings depicted within. There is a lot of white, empty space around the printed words on most pages, which is symbolic of the stark, icy and wintry backdrop against which the book is set. Much of the prose throughout the book reads like lyrical poems.

It is a novella of surreal beauty interspersed with moments of volatile darkness that can strike as suddenly and violently as the avalanche triggered by the Reverend’s gun.

I simply adored this atmospheric novella, and I’ll end with a quote from the book that describes the stunning Northern Lights (or Aurora Borealis), a natural phenomenon I was lucky to witness a few years ago, north of the Arctic Circle.

In the halls of heaven it was now dark enough for the Aurora Borealis sisters to begin their lively dance of the veils. With an enchanting play of colours they flitted light and quick about the great stage of the heavens, in fluttering golden dresses, their tumbling pearl necklaces scattering here and there in their wild caperings.

Subsequently, I have gone on to read his From the Mouth of a Whale, which I remember liking immensely at the time, but do not recall much of it now, unfortunately!

Cockroaches – Scholastique Mukasonga (tr. Jordan Stump)

Scholastique Mukasonga is an author I had been meaning to read for a while, especially since the wonderful Archipelago Books had published a slew of her memoirs, a novel and a collection of short stories. I decided to begin with Cockroaches, the first of her acclaimed autobiographical works.

We thought we could see implacable hatred in their eyes. They called us Inyenzi – cockroaches. From now on, in Nyamata, we would all be Inyenzi. I was an Inyenzi.

Cockroaches is Mukasonga’s hard-hitting and heartbreaking chronicle of her Tutsi childhood in Rwanda and the events leading up to the horrific 1994 Rwandan genocide, told with poetic grace and intensity.

This genocide is truly a dark spot in the annals of African history, where an estimated 500,000 Tutsis (as per Wikipedia) were senselessly massacred by the Hutu clan. Just before the opening pages, Mukasonga dedicates the book to the murdered members of her family – her father Cosmo, her mother Stefania, her brother Antoine and his family, her sister Alexia and her family, and her other sisters Judith, Julienne and Jeanne.

As we begin reading, we realize that the genocide was not a sudden occurrence. Seeds of it were sown much earlier. Mukasonga reveals how the Tutsis were relentlessly persecuted right from the early days of her childhood.

The first pogroms against the Tutsis broke out on all Saints’ Day, 1959. The machinery of the genocide had been set into motion. It would never stop. Until the final solution, it would never stop.

Born in the late 1950s, Mukasonga’s first recollections begin from their new house in Magi, on the steep foothills of Mount Makwaza. Her big sister Alexia and her elder brothers Antoine and Andre went to school, while her mother worked the fields. Her father knew to read and write and worked as an accountant and secretary to the sub-chief Ruvebana. As soon as she was three, Mukasonga experienced her first brush with terror as she “heard noises, shouts, a hum like a swarm of monstrous bees, a growl filling the air.”

Her family manages to escape and hide in the banana groves. While still roaring, men burst into their house, launched a frenzied attack and destroyed all their possessions and belongings. Realising that they will never be able to resume their old life in Magi, a long period of exile begins for Mukasonga and her family. They are deported to Nyamata, in the district called Bugasera – an almost unpopulated savannah, home to big, wild animals, infested by tsetse flies.

The exiled families still harbor hopes of going back to Rwanda one day. But meanwhile, they must carve out an existence in the wild land right from scratch. And they manage to do just that. Bound by a sense of community and brotherhood, the exiled Tutsis begin focusing on the practical matters of restarting everyday life. Houses are built, latrines are dug, fields are cleared for growing crops, and for immediate money they begin working for the locals. Hardships are aplenty, but the Tutsis find a way to survive. Until the spectre of massacre comes to haunt them once again.

One day, thinking that the King is about to pay them a visit, the Tutsis dress up in their Sunday best on the appointed day. Morning quickly merges into the afternoon, and there’s still no sign of the king. However, helicopters suddenly make an appearance and start targeting the Tutsis who are once again compelled to flee for dear life. In this manner, Mukasonga’s family find themselves displaced yet again as they make their way to Gitagata to rebuild their lives.

What is remarkable about Mukasonga’s story is the indomitable spirit and the instinct for survival displayed by the Tutsis in the face of unspeakable tragedy. Mukasonga’s mother, for instance, dreads the prospect of moving again and having to begin life anew, but soldier on she must. The father is a resilient man too, and has ambitions of educating his children by sending them to school whatever the circumstances. That single mindedness yields results because we would not have had this book in our hands had Mukasonga also been murdered with the rest of the family.

It’s not all bleak though. Mukasonga writes about how the family manages to find moments of happiness and calm even when the world is crumbling around them and death is just around the corner. Mukasonga, particularly, cherishes some fond memories of her childhood – the daily routine, running for school, singing and dancing, making food preparations for festival days, enjoying languid afternoons with friends by the lake, and being enthralled by her mother’s storytelling skills.

As the book progresses, Mukasonga begins to develop an aptitude for education and learning, and we follow her journey from Nyamata “where the solidarity of the ghetto gave her the strength to endure the violent and even deadly persecution”, to the school in the city where “she would know the solitude of humiliation and rejection.”

It is the parents’ insistence that something of the Mukasonga family remains, and with that goal in mind they send Scholastique and Andre to pursue higher education in the city, even though they remain in the villages, so that the two avoid the tragic fate that is destined to befall the family (which is exactly what happens).

Andre becomes the head doctor of a hospital in Dakar, Senegal, while Scholastique pursues a career in social work eventually marrying and settling in France. And that is how they end up being the only survivors of the original Mukasonga family.

The penultimate chapter in the book focuses exclusively on the horrors of the 1994 genocide, and is quite brutal. The sheer random cruelty, mayhem, and mass murder make these sections painfully difficult to read. Mukasonga is tormented by the fact that she is not present with her family when these horrific crimes take place. It takes her nearly ten years since to revisit her Rwanda, to visit as she so calls “the land of the dead.”

The murderers tried to erase everything they were, even any memory of their existence, but, in the schoolchild’s notebook that I am now never without, I write down their names. I have nothing left of my family and all the others who died in Nyamata but that paper grave.

Cockroaches was first published in 2006 after a gap of nearly 12 years since the genocide. From the vantage point of adulthood, Mukasonga gains the necessary distance and perspective when recalling and retelling her brutal past. Her prose is spare and lucid, lyrical yet tragic. Her language is drenched in warmth and emits rays of great tenderness and beauty even amid all the pain.

The reality of the shocking, gruesome genocide is hard to digest, and I realized how easy it is for the reader to just snap the book shut and not read more if he/she is no mood to stomach these horrors. And that is fine. We have that advantage to choose. If only the Tutsis had that choice too – to shut out that violence, and lead a normal life like the rest of us.

A Wreath of Roses – Elizabeth Taylor

Elizabeth Taylor is quickly becoming one of my favourite authors. My first of hers was A Game of Hide and Seek, which I loved, followed by Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont and The Soul of Kindness. The latter two books found a place on my best reads for 2019 and my list of 2020 favourites respectively. A Wreath of Roses, then, is another winner from her oeuvre.

A  Wreath of Roses is a beautiful, dark tale of dangerous deception, lies, friendship and mortality.

The ominous opening scene pretty much sets the tone for the rest of the novel. We meet Camilla Hill – possibly in her late thirties who holds a secretarial position in a girls’ school – on a railway platform waiting for the train. Camilla is on her way to the countryside to spend the summer with her two best friends – Liz and Liz’s former governess Frances – just like they always did in the previous summers.

It is a blistering, scorching day, the white buildings shimmer, and an air of lethargy descends upon Camilla. She notices another individual waiting on the same platform as her (later revealed to us as Richard Elton). But this is just the lull before the storm. Very soon, both of them witness a man climb the parapet above the tracks and jump in front of the oncoming train.

This happening broke the afternoon in two. The feeling of eternity had vanished. What had been timeless and silent became chaotic and disorganized, with feet running along the echoing boards, voices staccato, and the afternoon darkening with the vultures of disaster, who felt the presence of death and arrived from the village to savour it and to explain the happening to one another.

This sudden juxtaposition of suicide and death in an otherwise seemingly calm environment unnerves the reader as much as it instills a sense of unease in Camilla. To add fuel to the fire, more unwelcome surprises await Camilla.

On reaching their holiday cottage, Camilla notices a marked change in both Liz and Frances. In earlier years, their summers were always ripe and filled with shared confidences, literary jokes, painting, and going for long strolls. But this year, it all feels different. Liz has married a clergyman and is preoccupied with her baby. Frances is growing old and frail and has departed from her trademark style of painting – having switched from gentle portraits and bucolic landscapes to producing wild, terrifying abstract works of art.

She felt ashamed of her preoccupation with stillness, with her aerial flowers, her delicate colours, her femininity. She was tempted outside her range as an artist, and for the first time painted from an inner darkness, groping and undisciplined, as if in an act of relief from her own turmoil.

In terms of personalities, Camilla and Liz could not be more different. Liz is warm, vivacious, sweet-natured, and holds no grudge. Camilla is guarded and reserved, certain disappointments in her life have made her defensive, and she employs sarcasm as a shield to keep hurt at bay.

Into this picture, we are once again introduced to Richard Elton, the man Camilla travelled with on the train. Richard is a sinister character, full of secrets, a man not to be trusted. At first glance, Camilla dismisses Richard as a type of character she typically despises, an empty man ‘who could never have any part in her life, whose existence could not touch hers, which was thoughtful rather than active and counted its values in a different way.’

Yet, she finds herself dangerously attracted to him. Afflicted by a sharp bout of loneliness, and painfully aware that life is passing her by, Camilla begins to see Richard often against her better instincts. This is partly as a form of revenge against Liz because she believes the latter has abandoned her, and partly because she feels the urge to venture outside her comfort zone and plunge into excitement and adventure. After all, Liz and Frances have taken dramatic decisions regarding their lives, so why can’t she, Camilla, do something similar?

While the reader is already aware that Richard is a dangerous liar with an aura of threat about him, will Camilla eventually see through his façade, his odd behaviour sharpened by fear?

A Wreath of Roses is a novel of many themes. There’s mortality and Frances’ preoccupation with it. Having been independent all her life, Frances worries about old age and the state of dependence that it implies. Also, just when she is about to explore new territories in her painting style, health issues begin to mar her.

The novel also touches upon friendship and how a change in circumstances can considerably alter the dynamics between friends, in a way that they can no longer connect on a deeper level as they once did.

A Wreath of Roses is also an unflinching portrayal of deception and lies – not just told by others, but probing deeper into the lies we tell ourselves to justify our actions.

Taylor excels at visual imagery and the landscape is as much a character in the novel as the people in it. The village where the women are staying is a place of holiday and of menace, and throughout the novel these two states remain intertwined.

Adept in her depiction of big drama in small-scale settings, Elizabeth Taylor is truly perceptive, an excellent chronicler of human nature complete with sharp observations and keen insights. Throw in some dash of wit and humour, and what we have in our hands is a rich and textured novel.

This is one of her darker novels looking as it does at the pain of life, its random cruelty and agonies of isolation. Throughout its pages, an air of violence and peril lurks, all kinds of fear grips its characters, and the reader is overcome by a feeling of dread and an impending sense of doom.

We are eventually left to ponder – Can crossing the boundaries of our individual limits traumatize us forever? And can real friendship survive the myriad changes in character and upheavals in circumstances that make up life?

Just as A Wreath of Roses opens on an ominous note, so does it end with darkness at its heart.

Last Stories – William Trevor

William Trevor’s Last Stories is an exquisite collection of tales featuring lonely lives, individuals resigned to a quiet existence, love not panning out as desired, and finding contentment in small things.

As tends to be the case with any short story collection, some of the stories were very strong, while others failed to hit the mark. For the purposes of this review, I will focus on the ones that made an impression on me because in a sense they also form the essence of the whole collection.

One of my favourite stories, At the Caffé Daria, is a tale of two women – Anita and Claire – good friends once upon a time but no longer. Anita is now a publisher’s reader and frequently visits Caffé Daria as part of her daily routine. On one of these visits, she runs into Claire who informs her that her husband recently died. The death of Claire’s husband brings back a flood of painful memories, as Anita recalls a past tarnished by betrayal. The reader is made aware of Anita and Claire’s friendship when they were dancers in a troupe called Fireflies. During this period, Anita agrees to marry an older man, who declares his undying love for her, and chooses to settle down. But while she is content with married life, her husband abandons her for Claire, leading to a rift in their friendship. When the man dies, in a fit of loneliness, Claire seeks out Anita, but will the latter find it in her heart to let be bygones be bygones? This is a brilliant piece on how betrayal can tilt the delicate balance of friendship, on how loneliness and anger afflict the two women as they cope with abandonment.

Claire cherishes in her lonely solitude what Anita, in hers, too late embraces now: all that there was before love came, when friendship was the better thing.

What is the price one is willing to pay to harness talent? At the heart of The Piano Teacher’s Pupil, is our protagonist Miss Elizabeth Nightingale, a woman in her early fifties, “slender, softly spoken, with a quiet beauty continuing to distinguish her features.” Miss Nightingale, now all by herself, gives music lessons in the same rooms where she spent most of her childhood and also carried out her secret love affair with a married man. Her parents are now no more, and the affair fizzles out, but Miss Nightingale is not a bitter woman, for “after all there was the memory of a happiness.” When a child prodigy begins to take piano lessons from her she is dazzled by his talent, until, she realizes he is equally adept at stealing objects from her room.

She had sought too much in trying to understand how human frailty connected with love or with the beauty that the gifted brought. There was a balance struck: it was enough.

In Mrs Crasthorpe, the titular character feels profoundly humiliated because she is the sole mourner at her husband’s bleak funeral, in a village he requested, though she does not know why. But, Mrs Crasthorpe is a woman of secrets herself, and believes that although she married her husband for money and was blessed with a comfortable life, she couldn’t really blossom in their union. Thus, she perceives his death as an opportunity for her to rise in life.

I shall relish my widowhood. I shall make something of it.

Her journey through grief and attempting to forge a new life is contrasted with that of another character called Etheridge. Etheridge has also experienced tragedy with the death of his wife, who he loved dearly, but he finds solace in work, reinventing himself and somehow moving on.

Etheridge’s path occasionally crosses with Mrs Crasthorpe’s, though he wishes it didn’t, and this uneasiness is also mirrored in the reader. This is an excellent, nuanced tale of two people, who grapple with a major upheaval in their personal life, and yet what fate eventually has in store for them is diametrically opposite. 

In An Idyll in Winter, a teenage girl, Mary Bella, living in a big house surrounded by a farm, finds her imagination fired up by her tutor, Anthony, an older man. An attraction that does not play out then, Anthony alters his career path to become a cartographer, marries and settles down with two daughters. A chance visit to the farm, several years later, kindles the romance between Mary Bella and Anthony, and the latter proceeds to end his marriage. Fear grips both the women in the story as they are bound to a man, who despite his best intentions, ends up equally hurting them.  

With that simplicity a loneliness began for Mary Bella that was more than loneliness had ever been before. Belittling the solitude she had so often known, it was mysterious too, coming as it did while she still had the companionship she valued more than any other.

The story Two Women, begins thus: “Cecelia Normanton knew her father well, her mother not at all.” Cecelia is aware of her mother’s absence during her childhood, but is plagued with doubt whether she is dead. This feeling of uncertainty persists, and her father is reluctant to make things clear. Meanwhile, a new life beckons for Cecelia. Once she is ensconced in a boarding school, where she begins to blossom after initial hiccups, Cecelia notices two women who are possibly stalking her – they are always present at her hockey matches and other events. Who are these two women and will they shed some modicum of light on Cecilia’s origins?

This flimsy exercise in assumption and surmise crept, unsummoned, into Cecelia’s thoughts and did not go away. Shakily challenging the apparent, the almost certain, its suppositions were vague, inchoate. Yet they were there, and Cecelia reached out for their whisper of consoling doubt.

Last Stories proves that Trevor is truly a master of the short form. His writing is brilliantly understated and nuanced, the stories abound with sensitively portrayed characters.  He crafts his sentences with care, and every piece crackles with aching poignancy.

Not all the people in his stories are lonely though. They are certainly alone, but some find peace in routine and the life they have shaped for themselves.  Others are lonely creatures not only because they have no one that matters, but also when they are in relationships. Some are marginal people, on the fringes of life, like the dead woman in The Unknown Girl, whose life is summed up in a sentence – “Between the childhood and the death there was a life that hadn’t been worth living.” Others like Mary Bella are beset by persistent dread of losing the love they possess.

What is also remarkable about these stories is how unpredictable they are. A story will coast along in a certain direction, and the reader might form some assumptions, only to realize that it has shaped up in completely unexpected ways. A tincture of melancholia seeps into each of these tales, punctuated by ambiguities and moments of creeping doubts. Last Stories, then, is a fitting finale to Trevor’s illustrious writing career.