Books October 2002

Tragedy in Ireland

William Trevor's thirteenth novel tells perhaps his saddest story yet

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.

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