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  • Writer's pictureAlan Bray

You Have To Go Back To Go Forward

What we have been shown in William Trevor’s melancholy After Rain is that Harriet, the protagonist, has an epiphany while coming out of an Italian cathedral—after the rain. The narrator entity says it: “Too slick and glib, to use her love affairs to restore her faith in love…She has cheated in her love affairs.” Her experience of her parents’ marriage and divorce——a marriage they maintained while romantically involved with others—broke Harriet’s faith in love.

There is a paragraph break, and then: “The sun is still reluctant in the watery sky. On her walk back to the Pensione Cesarina it seems to Harriet that in this brash smother of heat a different life has crept out of the foliage and stone. A coolness emanates from the road she walks on. Unseen, among the wild geraniums, one bird sings.”

‘Kay, this continues the sense that change has occurred during her time away visiting the Cathedral, although it is tentative and fragile. That “one bird sings” is well done—is it Harriet?

(Whiny voice) Duh. But how can a bird be a woman?

Harriet now tacks away from her epiphany, returning to self-doubt and torture. She recalls her parents making her wear a hat “she didn’t like” while they skulked in the sun “behind dark glasses and high-factor cream.” After this unpleasant memory of dissatisfaction, she immediately thinks of her most recent ex-lover whom she was supposed to be with on vacation. She imagines that he found someone else to replace her. “She sees him with a companion who is uncomplicated and happy…” In the hotel garden, her shoes are soaked.

Then she hears the Cathedral bells: “six o’clock in Santa Fabiola, six o’clock a minute later somewhere else.” She has another powerful epiphany. The painting she saw, the Annunciation “…was painted after rain…It was after rain that the angel came: those first cool moments were a chosen time.”

It’s a nice touch that she briefly returns to her dysphoric state of distress. It would be less powerful if she had the epiphany and it had stuck for all time. No, she must return to her previous unhappiness and then have another revelation about her revelation. An interesting touch too of hearing the nearby bells ring and thinking the same time is occurring somewhere else “a minute later.” Time, then, is not absolute but relative. Although things are framed formally as present and past, I believe the story’s intent is to show that Harriet has existed in two different time “zones,” one her present at the Pensione Cesarina, and one in the past, when she is a little girl betrayed by her mother and father, and then later when she cheats at love.

After a final paragraph break, the story returns to the beginning, in that time has skipped ahead a few hours and she is once again having dinner at the Pensione. “…the table where the man with the garish shirt sat has been joined to a family table to allow for a party of seven.” We’ve come full circle. The small table that, in the story’s first sentence, had been set for a single diner, has been joined to a family table. “New faces are dotted everywhere.”

Harriet eats. “It’s noisy in the dining room now…It felt like noise in the foyer of the Rembrandt Cinema when he told her: the uproar of shock, although it was quite silent there. Bright, harsh colors flashed through her consciousness…For a moment in the foyer of the cinema, she closed her eyes, as she had when they told her they weren’t to be a family anymore.”

So, her present time now links with two other significant past times: the recent break-up and when her parents told her of their divorce.

She tastes the food, familiar from other stays at the hotel: “She won’t taste that again; as mysteriously as she knows she has cheated without meaning to in her love affairs, she knows she won’t come back, alone or with someone else. Coming back has been done, a private journey that chance suggested.”

She thinks of her most recent lover: “He backed away, as others have, when she asked to much of love, when she tried to change the circumstances that are the past by imposing a brighter present…She has been a victim of herself…she knows that now and wonders why she does and why she didn’t before. Nothing tells her when she ponders the solitude of her stay in the Pensione Cesarina and she senses that nothing ever will…The story of Santa Fabiola is lost in the shadows that were once the people in her life…Rain has sweetened the breathless air, the angel comes mysteriously also.”

The story ends with this long pronouncement by the narrator, excerpted here. Harriet has changed profoundly because of her stay at the Pensione and the trip to the Cathedral.

It’s key to the structure of the story that there is a narrator entity who comments and contextualizes the action. It could be written in a different way, perhaps with Harriet as a first-person “I” who thinks herself into a new place. But that would be a different story. In this one, the narrator knows a bit more than Harriet does, the narrator is always a half-step ahead of her awareness. Harriet finds the reasons for her having revelations about herself to be as mysterious as the Annunciation. But the reader, guided by the narrator, sees more clearly that she has accepted painful parts of herself because of the experiences at the Pensione and the Cathedral. After Rain begins with Harriet alone and in pain and ends with her ready to return to her home with a resolve to break the painful pattern she’s been acting out. Maybe it could be said that the story poses a will she/won’t she question—will she recover or not. And the author knows the answer and leads the reader to the end. William Trevor is God.

Next week, a new story.

Till then, dear friends.


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