Family Sins & Other Stories

Fate and its subsidiaries — passion, character, illusion, family — move in mysterious and archaic ways in William Trevor’s stories, Family Sins & Other Stories, some of which take place in the Ireland of a few decades ago but could as easily be set 100 years or more in the past. In the poignant and beautiful story ”In Love with Ariadne,” a student’s passion for his landlady’s mysteriously subdued daughter, sustained through the raucous amorous escapades favored by his fellow students, leaves him at last keeping a silent vigil in the snow before a darkened convent. The story turns, delicately and unforgettably, on an innocent Sunday afternoon walk through wartime Dublin, which is all it takes to stir up a dormant family hell.

Not all the stories in this consistently good collection are dense with tragic fate. Some are dense with comic fate. Take, for instance, ”Children of the Headmaster,” about an ex-policeman who pompously rules over a small boarding school, doing his stern, ceremonious best to be a late-20th-century Victorian despot; like all despots, he finally can’t be told — even by his own son — what his subjects really think of him. The quiet comedy in these stories keeps condensing into disquieting irony. ”A Trinity” seems to be simply a comedy of errors about a young English working-class couple routed by mistake into a geriatric tour of Swiss kitsch instead of the trendy excursion to Venice they signed up for, but it all turns out to be a prosaic form of poetic justice.

The ”family sins” of the title story are handed down like family heirlooms from a pious, autocratic grandfather to an impious, mutinous grandson, in the process wreaking havoc on a pretty cousin and a devoted friend. And also in the process summing up the essential theme of this masterful book: We might as well resign ourselves to our fate, which is to rebel against our fate.

Family Sins & Other Stories
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