Books October 2002

Tragedy in Ireland

William Trevor's thirteenth novel tells perhaps his saddest story yet
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A wise reader will approach William Trevor's new novel as an allegory, or a political treatise, or perhaps a meditation on the role of the exile in the history of the Irish people during the twentieth century. A wise reader, in other words, will hold this beautiful and devastating tale at a kind of emotional arm's length.

Heartache, regret, the stunned accommodations we make to fate and to history, and also our patient pursuit of redemption have been at the center of much of Trevor's fiction, and in The Story of Lucy Gault, his thirteenth novel, he brings these themes to a nearly unbearable pitch. It is perhaps the saddest story he has ever told, although even here redemption is possible—as in all his best work, quotidian acts of grace, and the language with which he describes them, trump fate and misfortune and loss.

The story of Lucy Gault begins with a gunshot. Captain Everard Gault, the Anglo-Irish owner of Lahardane, a modest estate on the southeast coast of Ireland, fires at three shadowy figures approaching his house in the middle of the night. It is 1921, and Anglo-Irish homes are being torched by arsonists throughout the country. Captain Gault, defending his wife and his child and the house that is his inheritance, intends only to fire over the heads of these intruders but instead wounds one in the shoulder. Well aware of his Protestant family's position, even after generations, as guests of a nation, he writes to the local Catholic priest, expressing his regret for the incident and making clear that his intention was to warn, not to harm. But the priest's response is awkward, and more awkward still is Captain Gault's visit to the home of the wounded boy.

In the end, Captain Gault said—and was embarrassed and felt awkward saying it—that Daniel O'Connell in his day had stayed at Lahardane. The name was legendary, the man the beloved champion of the oppressed; but time, in this small dwelling at least, had robbed the past of magic.

Heloise, Everard's English wife, understands well before her husband does that they will never again be safe at their beloved Lahardane—that the incident will not be forgotten, and that revenge will come. But he, too, eventually realizes that for their daughter's safety, if not their own, they must leave Ireland. Eight-year-old Lucy Gault learns of "the trouble in the night" and its ramifications only by eavesdropping on her parents' conversations and the conversations of Henry and Bridget, the Gaults' Irish servants. She understands that they are to leave Lahardane—"the glen and the woods and the seashore, the flat rocks where the shrimp pools were, the room she woke up in, the chatter of the hens in the yard, the gobbling of the turkeys, her footsteps the first marks on the sand when she walked to Kilauran to school"—but she cannot understand why. She is already cross with her parents that summer, because they don't share her affection for a neighbor's abandoned dog, and as the day of their departure grows near, she devises a plan to run away, if only to show her determination to stay.

But on the eve of their departure, as Lucy takes a hidden path through the woods, she stumbles and breaks her ankle. At the same time, her father, walking on the strand, comes upon a piece of his daughter's clothing, a summer vest that was stolen by the befriended dog some days before, when Lucy, against her parents' wishes, swam alone in the sea. When her absence is discovered, the vest—and Bridget and Henry's confession that they had suspected Lucy of swimming alone on occasion—leads the Gaults to a terrible conclusion.

As if somehow it had acquired a potency of its own in feeding on circumstances and events, the falsity that beguiled the Captain, and his wife and their servants, was neither questioned nor denied. The house had been searched, the sheds in the yard, the garden, the orchard ... The sea was what remained. It seemed no more than the mockery of wishful thinking that its claims, so insistently pressed by what facts there were, should not be accepted.

Devastated, Lucy's parents leave Ireland, no longer to escape the threat of arson but to flee the very landscape that is now only a reminder of their grief and their guilt. Heloise Gault knows that England will offer no respite. Severing all ties with the past, carrying all their valuables with them, the Gaults travel through France and then Italy, sending word to Ireland only once—word that they "have travelled on." When Henry finds Lucy in the woods, nearly starved but still alive, her parents' whereabouts are unknown; they remain unknown for almost thirty years.

"It is our tragedy in Ireland," says Aloysius Sullivan, the Gaults' lawyer, who fails to find them, "that for one reason or another we are repeatedly obliged to flee from what we hold dear." Exile, guilt, the peculiar (peculiarly Irish) fatalism that guilt engenders, and the ordinary antidotes for these griefs—religion, art, an orderly life (Heloise, in Europe, seeks out portraits of the Annunciation and Saint Cecilia; her daughter, in what becomes a self-imposed exile at Lahardane, takes up needlepoint and beekeeping)—are the subjects and themes of The Story of Lucy Gault, but they are hardly the sum of its effect. For in his stately depiction of a tragic tale that might, in other hands, seem overwrought, perhaps even overdetermined, Trevor has once again captured the terrible beauty of Ireland's fate, and the fate of us all—at the mercy of history, circumstance, and the vicissitudes of time.

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