Last Stories. By William Trevor. Viking; 224 pages; $26 and £14.99.

WILLIAM TREVOR’S prose runs as clear as water yet tastes like gin. The Irish author—who died in 2016, aged 88—was a master of understatement, depicting small lives with rangy precision. At its best his fiction earned comparisons with Chekhov; in turn, he influenced a generation of writers in Ireland and beyond. He was considered for a Nobel prize and nominated five times for the Man Booker. “I live with people who don’t exist,” Trevor said in 2011, while working on his final collection, “Last Stories”, now published posthumously. “I have to write about them and there isn’t enough time.”

Set largely in England, these ten elegiac tales depict loss of innocence, loss of memory, loss of love and, acutely, loss of life. The characters and their professions are varied. They include a piano teacher, a cartographer and a painting restorer; in a wry nod to Trevor’s own trade, a gentle widow “read the novels that time’s esteem had kept alive, and judged contemporary fiction for herself”.

In a book the author knew to be his last, the past is presented as textured and alive. “How the past holds on,” remarks Anthony in “An Idyll in Winter”. Anthony’s former pupil, Mary Bella, “knew that she was living in the past, that the past would always be there, around her, that she was part of it herself”. In “At the Caffé Daria”, a story of betrayal, love and friendship, the past is inescapable. “Death exorcises nothing,” Anita realises on learning of her husband’s passing from Claire, her childhood best friend, who had long supplanted her in his affections.

By contrast, “The Crippled Man”, set in Ireland, queries what it means to live. Guzzling whisky and dependent on his carer, the invalid who is its protagonist had been assumed dead by the locals. Within the suffocating smallness of this setting, quiet, flawless observations dazzle. Simple sentences colour with meaning. Martine, a distant relative caring for the crippled man in return for lodging, can “crack open an egg and empty it with one hand. Two each they had.” Moments of sensuality hint at her wider, wilder perspective, such as the rain “drenching her arms and the grey-black material of her dress, running down between her breasts.”

Trevor was and remains an author against whom other talents are measured. His work earns its place in the canon that “time’s esteem” will keep alive.