William Trevor: My House in Umbria (1991) Novella and Movie

My House in Umbria is one of two longer novellas contained in the book Two Lives. The other one is called Reading Turgenev. I’ve had the book for a while and since Mel u’s Irish Short Story Week has been prolonged, I decided to read it now. William Trevor is one of those authors I always wanted to read more of.

My House in Umbria is a surprisingly somber and complex novella. As lovely as the setting is, a villa located near Siena, there are some dark undercurrents, nasty secrets and a back story unlike any other to discover.

The story is told in the very unique voice of Mrs. Emily Delahunty. Delahunty is one of a few names she has chosen for herself. She is a romance novelist with a more than troubled past. Sold by her parents as a child, abused by her step-father and later abandoned by a lover and stranded in a hotel in Africa where she meets Quinty. Quinty isn’t any less mysterious or adventurous than Emily and this strange couple forms an interesting alliance. At the beginning of the story they live in the afore-mentioned villa in Umbria. Surprisingly Emily’s novels have brought money and fame and she lives a comfortable life. She is haunted by the past but her incredible imagination helps her to flee to nicer places whenever the clouds get to dark. And there is always alcohol as well, to help circumnavigate the roughest cliffs.

At the beginning of the story she boards a train to Milano. The wagon she is sitting in is blown up and most of the passengers die. Only Emily, a young German man who loses his girlfriend, an old general who loses his daughter and Aimée a little American  girl whose whole family dies, survive.

After a stay at a hospital, Emily invites the three people to stay with her in her house in Umbria. The calm and peacefulness of the country-side, the beauty of the house, will help them recover, she hopes.

These four highly traumatized and maimed people share some moments of great intimacy, – reminiscent of the group in Enchanted April – until the day Aimee’s uncle announces that he will come and fetch the girl.

What follows is equally sad and dramatic and what little peace these wounded  people  have acquired is shattered for good. The idea that a man she has never seen before and who seems distant and unlikable, comes to get the girl who still suffers from amnesia is particularly painful for the three other victims.

Mrs Delahunty sounds like an unreliable narrator for most of the book but she isn’t. Some of the things she tells sound unbelievable but they turn out to be true, only, she mixes things she imagines with things that happened. She has a a habit of inventing back stories for each and every person she meets. It’s not surprising she has become a novelist. Hearing her we think she would have had what it takes to write great literature, yet she chose to write romances as a means to escape the memory of her past. Not only was she abused but it seems that before discovering that she is a writer, she was an escort girl in Africa.

It’s not often that I watch a movie based on a book right after having finished the book but I watched My House in Umbria the day after finishing Trevor’s novella.

I really enjoyed how the movie brings to life the great character of Mrs Delahunty. Maggie Smith is amazing in this role. They way she plays this very kind, vulnerable and sad woman is touching and funny at the same time. The movie changed the ending completely but stayed true to the rest of the story. It underlines and enhances the characters and episodes in the novella and I would say I liked it even better. Others may prefer the darker novella; I liked the way the movie interpreted some facts and changed a few others. In any case they work extremely well together. What the movie offers, apart from great acting, is enchanting pictures of a beautiful landscape and some truly comical moments when the worlds of Mrs Delahunty and Aimée’s uncle clash. It’s one of my favourite movies so far this year. But don’t get me wrong, the book is excellent as well.

It’s rare that a main character in a book is so memorable but I’m beginning to think that creating great characters is one of William Trevor’s strengths.


Jennifer Johnston: The Gingerbread Woman (2000) A Novel by One of Ireland’s Finest Writers

On a rainy afternoon on Killiney Hill a young man walking, without his overcoat, happens upon a woman gazing out over Dublin bay, standing perilously close to the edge. From their testy encounter develops a remarkable friendship which will enable each to face afresh their very different, damaged pasts, and to look, however tentatively, towards the future.

Jennifer Johnston’s book The Gingerbread Woman is easily one of the best books I have read this year. I enjoyed every word of it.  Johnston, although said to be one of the finest Irish writers, wasn’t known to me before I read about her on Danielle‘s and Kim’s blog. I believe they both mentioned other novels. I felt like starting with this one as I liked the description on the cover.

35 year-old Clara recovers from an operation and a broken heart while Laurence tries to come to terms with his grief. He has recently lost his wife and his little daughter. Clara and Laurence meet on a walk and later bump into each other again in a pub. Clara notices how lonely and sad Laurence is and asks him to stay at her house instead of the hotel. The dog Pansy is especially grateful as she had to sleep in the car. The story of these two wounded people is told in alternating points of view. Clara, who works for newspapers and teaches Irish literature at small universities, tries to write a novel. During the course of the book she writes parts of the novel that reveal her tragic love story. Laurence reveals his story in telling it to the people in the novel and in flashbacks. Clara’s mother and her doctor are interesting characters as well. The relationships she has with both of them, as with everybody actually, are far from the ordinary. She is quite an original character and I was surprised that her tragic love story was so banal. The reader guesses what is wrong with her lover right away but clever and hardheaded Clara is tragically clueless. (Hard to imagine but I have seen this sort of story happen many times –  as said, it is quite banal – and, believe me, no amount of good advice did beware the women from a painful disappointment).

Clara is very weak and ill, post-operative as she says. We wonder all through the book what health problem she had, even more so when the doctor mentions that the operation is linked to a sexual encounter. Big question mark on my side.

What is really special about this book is the feeling of immediacy. Clara is a character who doesn’t spare anyone. She always seems to say the truth. The conversations with her are deep and meaningful. If people were really talking like this, if they were this real,  how wonderful this would be.

Johnston is known for tackling Irish issues. This book is no exception. I found it interesting to read an inside point of view. We all have our opinions of Ireland, the IRA, the North and the South but probably we all know shit. We don’t know how deep the rift is between the two parts of this divided country.

Jennifer Johnston is truly an outstanding writer and I will certainly read many more of her books. I already have How Many Miles to Babylon, Two Moons and Fool’s Sanctuary on my TBR pile.

Jennifer Johnston has written some 15 novels. Which ones did you read or are you planning to read?