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Book Review : The Decay of an Anglo-Irish Dynasty

Times Book Critic

The Silence in the Garden by William Trevor (Viking: $17.95; 204 pages)

“An evil act has evil consequences,” that subtle man, Jawaharlal Nehru, once told another subtle man, the writer Andre Malraux.

Seemingly, it is not a subtle thought but a plain iron law. Plainness, though, can be the greatest subtlety of all. Iron, worked to its ultimate logic, turns into Gustave Eiffel’s towering Parisian cobweb.

William Trevor makes his fiction out of writer’s iron. Irony is his prime material; but it is worked with such astonishing fineness that it becomes a jeweler’s latticework, and particularly suited to catch his sunset.

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The beauty of “The Silence in the Garden” is of a sunset kind; the fading grace of a decayed Anglo-Irish dynasty in County Cork.

The grace is shot through with sadness. In part, in fact, Trevor’s exquisitely told tale is a eulogy for the passing of a kind of civility that Yeats celebrated in his “Wild Swan’s at Cool.” But that is only a starting point.

An Unsparing Judgment

As in one of Beethoven’s late quartets--and “silence” is musical in its form--a harsh and rigorous message is bound up in the story’s silken timbres. Trevor has accomplished the most unsparing of judgments on Ireland’s troubled history; or more particularly, on the English who arrived, centuries before, to implant the order of gentry in an ungentlemanly soil; and, hopefully, to tame it.

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With history as villain, there is no need for any others. The Rollestons of Carriglas, a gray stone house on an island just across from the mainland, are the most humane of aristocrats. Their ancestors, centuries before, had driven the island’s Irish lord bloodily into exile; but during the famine in the 19th Century, the Rollestons gave away food, money and land to help the starving.

It reduced their fortune, in fact; and by the 1930s, when most of the story takes place, Carriglas is reduced and faded. Col. Rolleston, the squire, was killed in the world war; the survivors include his mother in her 90s and luminously lucid; and his three grown children. All three, in different ways, are crippled. The story, told as a gradually resolving mystery, is how they came to be that way.

Agent of Discovery

Trevor’s gentle agent of discovery, who acts in a sense as our own eye, though a clouded one, is Sarah Pollexsen, a poor cousin. Her diaries are part of the story, alternating with the author’s own narrative.

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Her earliest entries go back to 1906, when she arrives to take up a kind of governess role. It is a golden time in her mind; the widowed Colonel still alive, the three children wandering free along with her own brother, Hugh, the household conducted with recollected order and gentleness.

A quarter century later, Sarah is back, after leaving to teach, and later, to take care of her widowed father. The golden household is blighted. The golden children are all, as she puts it to herself, “distorted.”

John, the eldest, has come back from the war with a limp and a crippling passiveness; he spends his time with a blowzy mainland mistress, and fantasizing about other, more elegant mistresses. Lionel works all day, silently, in the fields, the aristocrat turned back into a peasant. Villana, who once was to have married Hugh, has long since broken with him and is about to marry a shy, dry lawyer, many years older.

“I feel more than ever that I live in a cobweb of other people’s lives and do not understand the cobweb’s nature,” Sarah writes. “These are the people I knew as children; this is the same house; trees and shrubs are as they were.”

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What has happened? We and Sarah know that during the Troubles, a bomb, apparently meant for the young Rollestons, went off and killed the butler. Not long after, his fiancee, one of the maids, gave birth to their child.

Why does old Mrs. Rolleston take such particular care with the upbringing of Tom, the child, who still lives at Carriglas with his mother? And why does the old woman intimate a connection between the butler’s death and the breaking of Villana’s and Hugh’s engagement?

Sarah’s diary, with its puzzlement and its record of odd gestures and nuances, keeps up our own sense of mystery and our certainty that eventually we will come upon tragedy.

In a way, no history of Ireland’s independent struggle, and none of the fierce and legendary balladry have provided quite so lethal a denunciation--in its grace, its irony, its sadness and its kindness--of England’s long, many-hued incursion across the Irish Sea.

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