Literary Corner Cafe

Friday, March 7, 2008

Book Review - The Story of Lucy Gault by William Trevor

William Trevor's often been referred to as "the Irish Chekhov." I think this is a little unfair to both Trevor and Chekhov, since each is unique, but like Chekhov, Trevor is a master at "capturing the moment," and he's certainly one of the greatest short story writers who ever lived. The very fact that he hasn't yet been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature is simply confirmation of something most of us knew all along anyway: that the prize is often more of a political endowment than a literary one.

Despite my love for Trevor's short stories, I cherish his novels as well, primarily the sad and lovely, The Story of Lucy Gault. Trevor brings to this short book all of his mastery of sorrow and tragedy as well as his skill at capturing the moment.

The Story of Lucy Gault was published several years ago. I may be mistaken, but I don't believe Trevor's written a novel since although he's published two volumes of gorgeously beautiful short stories, A Bit on the Side and Cheating at Canasta. (Since I wrote this review, Trevor published the Booker longlisted novel, Love and Summer.)

The Story of Lucy Gault begins on June 21, in County Cork, Ireland when Captain Everard Gault, an Irish Protestant, married to an Englishwoman, is terrorized by a small group of Catholic boys who are attempting to burn down Lahardane, his ancestral home, during the Troubles of 1921.

A gentle man who only means to frighten the boys away, Gault fires into the group. Unfortunately, one of the boys, Horahan, is wounded, and Gault knows there will be a heavy price for him to pay.

Gault and his wife, Heloise, who have a nine-year-old daughter, Lucy to protect, decide to leave Lahardane in the custody of its caretakers, Henry and Bridget, and flee to England.

There are problems, however. Young Lucy Gault doesn't want to leave the only home she's ever known and the beautiful walled garden and the beach where she indulges her desire for secret swims. When her entreaties to be left behind with Henry and Bridget are denied, Lucy decides to hide in the woods, hoping her parents will think she's run away. An indulged child, but a sensitive one, Lucy knows her parents won't leave Lahardane without her.

Characters in William Trevor's books often get what they wish for, but not in the manner in which they wished for it. Lucy does, indeed, get to remain at Lahardane with Henry and Bridget, but only because her heartbroken parents truly believe her to be dead.

In overwhelmingly sad chapters, Trevor alternates between Lucy's lonely life at Lahardane as she occupies herself with reading novels, beekeeping, and feeling tremendous guilt for the problems she's caused, and the nomadic life of her heartbroken parents who spend their days wandering the hill towns of Italy, taking what solace they can in art, and vowing never to return to Ireland.

Many lesser authors (which is just about everyone, not quite, but just about) wouldn't carry the plotting of their book any further than the above. William Trevor, however, is no ordinary writer. All this sadness is but a prelude to even more sadness yet to come.

Lucy's life will become entwined once again with one of her parents, and she will be offered a chance at happiness. Happiness, however, isn't what Lucy seeks. She longs for redemption and she finds it, or what she can of it, in a bond with the most unlikely person around.

The Story of Lucy Gault is a sad, slow, thoughtful, elegiac novel. William Trevor is a master at portraying the holes and spaces in a life, at letting us know what's missing instead of what's present, in detailing the sadness of a life unlived. His prose is beautiful, rich, and poetic, but precise, with not a word wasted, and no matter what the situation, he never slips into melodrama. Silence and secrets play the biggest role in Trevor's novels.

I thought William Trevor had reached the zenith of his abilities with the beautiful novella, Reading Turgenev (also a Booker nominee), but The Story of Lucy Gault equals, though does not surpasses it. The Story of Lucy Gault is probably the saddest story I've ever read. It's quite possibly the saddest story you'll ever read as well. Haunted forever by the ghosts of the past, The Story of Lucy Gault shows us the truth of the words Trevor wrote in Reading Turgenev:

...only love matters in the bits and pieces of a person's life.

This was, by far and away, my favorite book since I can't remember when.


Recommended: Absolutely, with no reservation.

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