Like a good mystery, "Death in Summer" is a tease, coyly nudging readers away from what's really about to happen. But since its author is William Trevor, the renowned Anglo-Irish master of both story and novel, the book is a lot more -- a stark rendering of English class divisions and a compelling dramatization of sudden, violent eruptions in the lives of those too timid to venture beyond tidy safe harbors.
At the heart of this novel and "Felicia's Journey," Trevor's previous one, are young women of little education and lesser means struggling to make their way in an indifferent world. Early on, we understood that Felicia was a doomed victim. Pettie of "Death in Summer," a shoplifting runaway from a squalid orphanage, seems too cunning, energetic and resourceful for that fate. But now she's out of a job and the rent is overdue. Maybe she can land that nanny job out in the Essex countryside at Quincunx House, where Thaddeus Davenant's wife has just died, leaving behind a baby daughter.
It's too bad Pettie isn't allowed to tell this story. Though Trevor does shift back and forth between her and Thaddeus, it's this pale, tight-lipped trimmer who gets most of the attention. Thaddeus does have a certain understated edge; while still single, he once carried on with a married woman, and his match with the plain but well-to-do Letitia Iveson underscored a quietly creepy deviousness. But instead of sliding into iniquity, the melancholy Thaddeus only tends his garden.
To nearly every other character, Trevor gives a bracing humanity. Maidment is the nosy butler, rummaging through rooms and rumors like a gossip columnist. Albert is Pettie's worrywart pal, a young man with a big heart and endless curiosity. Dot Ferry is Thaddeus' conniving and pathetic former lover. Only Thaddeus' mother-in-law, Mrs. Iveson, seems more of an idea of upper-crust respectability than a fully fleshed-out human being.
Above all, what makes these characters interesting, even the tepid Thaddeus, is the author's foreboding Olympian vision. The great god Inertia rules all. Upstairs or downstairs, these contemporary Britons seem to shuffle along, ever prey to overwhelming, unseen forces. Bad things happen to good people, all right, but Trevor is eager to underscore the vulnerability of everyone, good or bad. Letitia's death (in a cycling accident) is but the first of several.
In very different ways, Pettie and Thaddeus are strangers to love. Pettie has suffered the mind-warping manipulations of a child molester. Thaddeus never had much of a father, never opened himself to love's vulnerability. Patiently, quietly, Trevor nudges these two toward the inevitable collision. The tension is palpable, the insight into character shrewd, the prose slyly seductive.