William Trevor – The Dressmaker’s Child

william trevor - the dressmakers child

I found this William Trevor Pocket Penguin at a charity shop in Leicester City Centre.

The Pocket Penguin series was released in 2005 to celebrate the 70th anniversary of Penguin Books, the first publisher in the United Kingdom to release high-quality literary works in more portable formats and more accessible prices in a time when books were either thick and heavy or cheap in content and cost. Pocket Penguins are skinny and affordable, £1.50 each (or 99p if you find them at a second hand store), and they tend to include short stories or brief essays written by classic or contemporary authors. There are writings by either Homer, Gustave Flaubert and Sigmund Freud orHunter S. Thompson, Anaïs Nin, Zadie Smigh, Virginia Woolf, Evelyn Waugh and Alain de Botton. This one I found, even without knowing the author yet, attracted me because of its dimensions apt to be read anywhere, because short stories are my favourite literary form, and because I thought the artwork cover by Claire Coles was pretty. So what?

According to the back cover, William Trevor is considered the best storyteller alive, and has been sheltered by Penguin House for nearly fifty years now. Although he has released novels such as Fools of Fortune, Felicia’s Journey and The Children of Dynmouth, his short stories make him stand out in compilations and periodic publications. For instance, the short story “The Dressmaker’s Child” was originally published on the New Yorker; but this is the first time it comes out in book format.

Trevor’s stories in this publication may be pacific and bucolic at first sight, located in Irish towns and peasant hills where everyone takes care of their farms, their workshops or their small businesses. Everybody knows the mechanic by his name, the pub owner, the post office clerk, those who take care of the cattle and those who harvest the little they can. Even if they are set in the late 90’s, time doesn’t change for anyone. To the contrary, not even memory gets lost. We find ourselves in small towns with large — internal — infernos.

The three stories in this book are branded by the guilt and shame that Irish Catholics love so much. The main story, where this compilation borrows its name, is about a mechanic assistant who, after taking a couple of Spanish honeymooners to visit the fake statue of a crying Virgin, gets involved in an accident that brings him bad luck and disturbs him to the point of near madness. But what chases him is nothing compared to what the local dressmaker lives, alienated by society for having a child out of wedlock, perhaps with learning disabilities, and perhaps a product of incest.

As we say in these communities, everyone has a cross to bear. But the crosses of Trevor’s characters come with lance on the side included.

Curses themselves are sentenced as absolutisms, with nothing between black and white. In “The Hill Bachelors”, the only single son moves in with his mother to take care of her after his father’s demise. His situation turns him into a poor candidate for marriage, as it happens with all the men on the hill according to the superstitions of the sister of one of them.

Finally, in “The Piano Tuner’s Wives”, a visually-impaired piano tuner ties the knot with an old flame after the death of his first wife, the great love of his life. The old new partner has to deal with the shadow of her predecessor, erasing any line of trust and affection by demolishing his past and edifying on it an alternative reality.

Any “mistake”, whether it is your fault or not or whether it is a big thing in the “first world” or not, is set in stone and tattooed on your forehead. The Scarlet Letter with no needle nor thread. The mark of Cain, chasing us all forever with no possibilities of redemption.

William Trevor
William Trevor

It reminds me in a certain way to the Diosero of Francisco Rojas González, where protocols intermingled with coincidences and there was no turning back on the road to marriage, childbirth, death and spinsterhood itself. Mexicans lived — and some still do — this way: pregnant women out of wedlock have to either have a shotgun wedding or go through life with the stigma of being single mothers. Barely a few decades ago it was normal for a man to ask the girl he likes in marriage regardless of reciprocity; and the eventual escape from these situations would take the fugitive from the golden cage of marriage to the bed of stone of Mexican divorce. Just like faith and party unite Mexicans and Irish people, fear and shame come included in the package.

The Dressmaker’s Child is a beautiful compilation in aesthetics and appearance, but words and deductions give it a bitter taste. Like extremely diluted coffee with milk from a starving cow in wintertime. Although, in lieu of sugar, sweetened by familiarity and a prayer before meals.

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