The William Trevor Reader: “Broken Homes”

August 23, 2022 | 2 4 min read

“Broken Homes” is another entry in the “old person befuddled by increasingly chaotic events” genre, a la “The Penthouse Apartment” and “The Hotel of the Idle Moon.” Mrs. Malby, 87, lives alone over the grocery store previously owned by her husband, who died five years ago. Her two sons died in World War II, and it is Mrs. Malby’s modest goal to live out the rest of her years in the apartment with her two budgies—more expressly, to avoid being labelled as senile and moved into an old-person’s home. 

We begin the story with Mrs. Malby enduring a visitation from an unnamed teacher from Tite Comprehensive School, a man who runs a program for students from “broken homes,” a phrase he repeats many times over the course of the story. He insists on the students coming by to paint Mrs. Malby’s flat, a service she rejects but is nonetheless subjected to. As one might expect, the painting goes badly: the students are rude, paint the kitchen despite the old woman’s objections and paint it badly, have sex in her bedroom and release the frantic budgies. Mrs. Malby escapes to the greengrocer’s below, run by a Jewish couple, the Kings (Trevor, like, Iris Murdoch, seems incapable of introducing Jewish characters, however sympathetic they are, and the Kings are sympathetic, without making a bit of a fuss about their Judaism). The Kings sort the problem out for Mrs. Malby as best they can, but her kitchen is still all wrong, a price she must accept to avoid a fuss that might land her in the dreaded Sunset Home in Richmond.

I have little more to say than I already have about Trevor’s focus on elderly characters and the problem of dementia. I don’t find “Broken Homes” especially remarkable in Trevor’s canon—it starts strong enough, but the situation is a bit overfamiliar and it doesn’t really go anywhere. The nameless teacher reiterates the need for people to help kids like the ones who destroyed her kitchen, “victims of broken homes.” Presumably this is meant to resonate with what we’ve learned about Mrs. Malby’s sons, but it isn’t clear how. Her home, of course, was broken decades ago by the war; the juvenile delinquents who destroyed her kitchen, are from homes broken by divorce. What the latter is meant to say about the former is impossible to tell, beyond the value judgment that some people have it worse than other people. In fact, the story’s point is most legible as a kind of anti-poor conservative screed, i.e. “Look at this bleeding-heart worried about hooligans from broken homes, when the real broken home is occupied by a woman whose sons gave the country their all, etc.” But I have no idea or real belief this was the intention.

Lacking much I want to focus on thematically or story-wise, I’d like to focus on the writing itself. “Broken Homes” starts strong, with an introduction of the teacher, and by extension an introduction of Mrs. Malby, focalized closely from her perspective: “‘I really think you’re marvellous,’ the man said.” I am not often a fan of beginning a story with dialogue, but I like it here, the way it immediately puts us so closely, helplessly in Mrs. Malby’s POV, while conveying the airless sense she has of being at this nameless man’s mercy:

He was small and plum, with a plump face that had a greyness about it where he shaved; his hair was grey also, falling into a fringe on his forehead. He was untidily dressed, a turtlenecked red jersey sticking out of the breast pocket. When he stood up his black corduroy trousers developed concertina creases. Nowadays you saw a lot of men like this, Mrs. Malby said to herself.

This paragraph continues what the first line of dialogue started, withholding the identity of the ostensibly marvelous “you” in question until the end of the last sentence. We are forced to continue looking at this sloppy, unpleasant man from an unknown POV, and we know the contours of Mrs. Malby’s judgment before we know her name. (As a side-note, I find that “concertina” both funny and effective descriptively, evoking as it does a clownish accordion, but also somewhat jarring in retrospect—Mrs. Malby is not someone who would probably draw this comparison, and it’s a rare example of Trevor showing off.)

“We’re trying to help them,” he said, “and of course we’re trying to help you. The policy is to foster a deeper understanding.” He smiled, displaying small, evenly arranged teeth. “Between the generations,” he added.

“Well, of course it’s very kind,” Mrs. Malby said.

He shook his head. He sipped the instant coffee she’d made for him and nibbled the edge of a pink wafer biscuit. As if driven by a compulsion, he dipped the biscuit into the coffee. He said:

“What age actually are you, Mrs. Malby?”

“I’m eighty-seven.”

“You really are splendid for eighty-seven.”

This dialogue is relatively standard and unremarkable, but I would note two things. First, the strange description of the teacher’s dipping of the biscuit in coffee as “driven by compulsion” prefigures the teacher’s seemingly compulsive effort to get Mrs. Malby’s house painted by his troubled students. Second, the placement of that “actually.” This is a small thing that, to my ear, somehow captures the falseness of the man. A person would normally say, “What age are you, actually?” or simply “What age are you?” The stilted positioning of that “actually” conveys the stilted nature of the teacher’s visit—he knows she doesn’t really need or want the service he is foisting on her.

He went on talking. He said he hoped he’d be as good himself at eighty-seven. He hoped he’d even be in the land of the living. “Which I doubt,” he said with a laugh. “Knowing me.”

Mrs. Malby didn’t know what he meant by that. She was sure she’d heard him quite correctly, but she could recall nothing he’d previously stated which indicated ill-health. She thought carefully while he continued to sip at his coffee and attend to the mush of biscuit. What he had said suggested that a knowledge of him would cause to you to doubt that he’d live to old age. Had he already supplied further knowledge of himself which, due to her slight deafness, she had not heard? If he hadn’t, why had he left everything hanging in the air like that? It was difficult to know how best to react, whether to smile or to display concern.

This paragraph manages, in pretty funny fashion—and I do believe Trevor’s wry humor is generally underestimated—to convey both Mrs. Malby’s doubt regarding her faculties and her distaste for the teacher and his inane conversational gambits. Perhaps the underappreciated comedy of Trevor will provide the content for a future entry…

The above page is not a tour-de-force, by any stretch. It is, in fact, pretty unexceptional, and for that reason, I think, worth pausing on. This is the grade-B journeyman stuff of the Trevor canon, the workaday perspective moves and dialogue adornments and character apperceptions that constitute the ordinary—which is to say extraordinary—fabric of his storytelling. 

is a staff writer for The Millions and the author of two novels: The Grand Tour (Doubleday 2016) and The Hotel Neversink (2019 Tin House Books). His short fiction has appeared in The Paris Review, VICE, The Iowa Review, and many other places. His podcast, Fan’s Notes, is an ongoing discussion about books and basketball. Find him online at adamofallonprice.com and on Twitter at @AdamOPrice.

2 comments:

  1. This is the weakest Trevor story I have read so far. It lacks authenticity, goes nowhere and repeats themes from the two stories you mention. It is an indication that he wrote too much, maybe because he practised a daily writing routine and had no trouble finding publication outlets

  2. Honestly, Norman, I agree with you. The writing is, as always, superb, but it just doesn’t have anything interesting to say about troubled kids from poor neighborhoods. Not sure if it’s my least favorite, but it’s down there for me

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