William Trevor's new novel is a romantic book that looks back to 1950s Ireland. It has atmosphere and sense of place -- a small town, Rathmoye, with its surrounding farms.
It offers up earthy detail:
"The fence [Dillahan] intended to replace was sagging, gaps here and there in the slack sheep-wire, a few of the posts rotten in the ground. Disturbed by his arrival, his ewes huddled together in the middle of the field before they processed back to the shade of the alders that grew randomly on both riverbanks, occasionally in the water."
It's summer. There's heat, rain, sun.
Rathmoye, like any small town in Ireland, is a community tied to the church. And, not surprisingly, the people of the town know about each other's bank accounts and histories.
In this place and time, a young wife, Ellie Dillahan, does her farm work, expecting nothing. She's well-liked. Everyone knows she lived in a convent most of her life until she was placed as a housekeeper with the grieving farmer Dillihan who eventually asked her to marry him. This is her life -- until the day of a local funeral when a stranger bicycles into town.
The stranger is Florian Kilderry, a photographer who wants to take pictures of Rathmoye's burned-out cinema; when he can't get access to the theater, he photographs the funeral instead. He is half-Italian, educated, and the child of artistic, romantic parents. It's Ellie whom he asks for information about the funeral.
The simple meeting is enough to get her thinking about him and vice versa. She finds him raffish and interesting. He finds her lovely and innocent.
Trevor builds the attraction over several weeks through several chance meetings; each is increasingly unable to forget the other.
But in this very small town, people interpret the stranger on the bicycle in terms of their own histories, their own summer seasons. There is Miss Connulty, whose mother's funeral starts off the novel. Her parents never forgave her an affair and the pregnancy that resulted. As they grew older, they turned to drink and good deeds to get past their shame.
Miss Connulty has a brother, Joseph Paul, forever innocent and intimidated by her. He is all work, no play, and does not allow thoughts of love to cross his mind.
Dillahan is a hard worker who doesn't notice much beyond his work. He mends the fence, counts his cattle and otherwise runs the farm. He is respected by the townspeople but has an aura of tragedy about him for having accidentally killed his first wife and baby.
And there is Orpen Wren, a Protestant and a homeless man who is demented enough to believe the corpse at the funeral is an old kitchen maid of his acquaintance. Orpen lives a life of analog, assigning the people of Rathmoye roles from his past. He is the catalyst for the action of the novel.
Ellie and Florian fall in love with each other's stories. He is touched by her life in the convent, she by his romantic parents and his life of comparative privilege.
The lovers sneak off for tea in nearby towns, leave notes for each other, meet on the paths to ruined properties. But they cannot remain hidden. Orpen Wren and Miss Connulty notice the electricity between them.
Trevor is one of our great writers. He does not allow easy answers. What seem at first like disconnected stories or character sketches are woven together, first with only the slenderest of threads and then with more and more cord until the whole story of Ellie and her town is clearly an inseparable piece.
The novel is rich with Irish locutions, which perhaps semantically color and interpret the whole. "You'd miss the old picture house," says a woman in a cafe to Florian -- referring to the movie theater that Miss Connulty's drunken father accidentally burned down, dying in the fire. In trading first person for second person, the woman suggests the interconnectedness of people:
I miss it, everybody misses it, and if you were from here, you'd miss it, too.
Kathleen George is the author of four police novels set in Pittsburgh -- "Taken," "Fallen," "Afterimage" and "The Odds." She is a professor of theater arts at the University of Pittsburgh.