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The William Trevor Reader: “Kathleen’s Field”

This is it. Number 85 out of 85 in the Collected. The last one, the final boss: “Kathleen’s Field.” For two years, this title has hung in my mind with a talismanic power, vaguely summoning an Edenic meadow through which I might romp having completed this self-imposed march through five decades of William Trevor’s short story work. My impulse is to immediately write a conclusory essay—what have I learned, would I do it again, and so on—but that essay can wait. For now, let me focus on this final story, in many ways the perfect story on which to end the Collected.

Kathleen is the youngest daughter of Mr. Hagerty, a farmer who covets a small piece of land that will advantageously expand his struggling farm, from which seven of his and Mrs. Hagertys’ ten children have already emigrated, leaving only the eldest son Con, disabled Biddy, and Kathleen. A serendipitous conversation with landlady Mrs. Shaughnessy and her wealthy husband results in the following arrangement: Mr. Shaughnessy will lend Mr. Hagerty the money to buy his field; Kathleen, in turn, will go to work for the Shaughnessys as a live-in maid. Her duties are varied and difficult, and the Shaugnessys are not patient with her. Further, it becomes clear as time goes on what Kathleen’s central duty will be: tolerating the physical advances made toward her by Mr. Shaughnessy, advances that begin with creepy physical proximity and heavy breathing, but that moves inexorable toward groping and presumably worse to come. Knowing that her continued employment means her family’s continued ownership of the magical field her father named after her, crediting her sacrifice, Kathleen resolves to remain quiet for the remaining period of the debt’s repayment, 12 or 14 years.

“Kathleen’s Field” offers just about all of the elements a reader of the Collected will have come to expect: an innocent protagonist with zero agency or prospects, an unpleasant male character and attendant sexual unpleasantness, a vast swath of time that must be endured, vast swaths of the remote Irish countryside that must be traversed by bicycle, bottles of stout, a post-WWII temporal placement, and so on. It isn’t an especially good story in the Trevor canon, but it’s especially representative. Indeed—and perhaps this is my fatigue coloring the reading experience—“Kathleen’s Field” feels as though it might have been written by an AI Trevor bot. At this point in the book, and in Trevor’s career, the muted and desolate endings feel gestural—Kathleen’s mother’s bracingly cruel repetition, regarding the trade of Kathleen for her field, that “a bargain is a bargain.

For that matter, the entire story, like many of these later stories—and again this is perhaps just a function of the project coming to a close—feels gestural. At this point, Trevor in his final, fully mature mode strikes me as a little like the aging rockstar who knows he merely has to come out and announce the hit songs, and the roaring crowd will do most of the singing for him. A flick of the wrist here, a swivel of the hip there—the art is created mostly by suggestion. And indeed, Trevor’s art—like most good short stories—is an art of implication and outlines, sometimes even of subtraction. We know next to nothing about Kathleen: we do not know about her friends, her hopes, her fears, her talents, her memories. We know nothing about the other children, besides that they have fled the farm. We know that she misses her family and is paying an unimaginable price—the price of her own unhappiness—to keep her father happy. We know she is in pain. Trevor’s art often goes no further than to sketch the outline of suffering and let the reader fill in the rest. And we ably do—or I do, anyway—having become the master’s apprentice over these iterations of this story, over all these weeks and months and years.

Thus concludes the standard installments of the William Trevor Reader, but tune in next week, for some final thoughts about the project, and the Trevoeuvre, and the man himself!

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