Literary Corner Cafe

Friday, December 18, 2009

Book Review - Felicia's Journey by William Trevor

Note: This is a combined movie/book review, as some of the details only happen in the movie (see the comment section). The book is richer, but the movie is also excellent, and I recommend both.

Thought by many to be William Trevor’s greatest work in a lifetime of great works, Felicia’s Journey centers around eighteen-year-old Felicia (of course), an Irish girl adrift in the English Midlands searching for Johnny Lysaght, the young man who abandoned her in a rural Irish village, leaving her not only heartbroken but pregnant. Although Felicia’s very patriotic father believes Johnny’s run off to join the British Army (and Irish boys, he tells Felicia, should remain in Ireland), Felicia chooses instead to believe Johnny, despite the fact that he’s never sent her a contact address as he promised to do. Believing he’s working in a lawnmower factory in the Midlands, Felicia packs her bags and sets out across the Irish Sea. She’s convinced that once she finds Johnny, he’ll make things right - for her and for their baby.

Finding Johnny, however, is proving to be a far tougher job than Felicia counted on and her cash, never much to start with, is rapidly running out. Enter Mr. Hilditch, the catering manager in one of the factories in which Felicia goes searching. Middle-aged, a little overweight, and terribly alone and lonely, Mr. Hilditch, who seem quite innocuous at first, eventually offers Felicia his help. Although Felicia trusts him (she says he "isn't a man you can be alarmed about for long"), the reader soon realizes that being alone and pregnant is the least of Felicia’s worries.

In some ways, Mr. Hilditch seems the most mild-mannered of men. He takes great pains to make sure the food served to the workers is pleasing food, food that is more than just nourishment. As he tells a salesman who wants him to automate the company’s kitchen, "food should be served with caring hands, so that people feel loved."

The preparation and serving of food is something Mr. Hilditch knows quite a bit about. His late mother, Gala, was, in her prime, a TV chef and local celebrity. Mr. Hilditch, who has a lovely home complete with large, gourmet kitchen, routinely watches Gala’s TV show videos as he prepares his own dinner, following his mother’s instructions to the letter as he stuffs turkey and trusses up lamb.

Trevor, who loves writing about those on the fringes of society, has created a masterpiece of characterization with Hilditch. Although it slowly becomes clear to the reader that he’s so much more than the helpful, genial catering manager he at first appears to be, Trevor has given us so much of his background, and has plumbed his depths so completely that we can only hate Hilditch’s crimes. We find it rather more difficult to hate Hilditch, himself. In fact, at times, I found Hilditch even more sympathetic than Felicia, herself, who is not only na├»ve, but rather stupid as well. This did not mean, of course, that I wanted any harm to come to her. I didn’t. But though I was rooting for her safety, I sometimes found myself thinking how foolish and risky her actions were and how blindly she trusted Johnny and romanticized their relationship.

While Felicia’s Journey is a thriller in the sense that we’re constantly on edge, worrying about the fate of this totally clueless but rather nice Irish girl, it’s also a first-rate psychological study of the effects of child abuse, something that Trevor writes about masterfully.

Trevor’s trademark irony is also evident in this novel as well. Hilditch, a master of the lie, manages to make Felicia ashamed for the few times she didn’t trust him completely. "No one else had been so concerned" about her well-being, she muses. And shockingly, shamefully, we come to realize it’s true. People in the Midlands have been anything but concerned.

Felicia’s Journey is a beautifully layered, beautifully written, very emotionally restrained novel, like all of Trevor’s work. Yet it is profound. Trevor works his by now familiar magic in making us not only understand, but feel sympathy for a madman. We understand how and why he does the things he does, and while we certainly don’t want him to do them, we know it’s not his fault that he does. Mr. Hilditch may, outwardly, be the very personification of evil, but we see, not only that evil, but also the pain that’s causing it. He’s an incredibly complex and complicated character, one of the finest Trevor’s ever created.

Like almost all of Trevor’s work, Felicia’s Journey explores the workings of fate and chance. Felicia’s life and Hilditch’s life would, of course, have been different had fate not thrown them together. But from their initial meeting, however, it seems clear that life meant for their paths to cross. Both have something to give to the other, and both have something to take from the other. Both leave their indelible imprint on the other’s life.

Also characteristic of Trevor’s work are the marginalized characters, in particular, Miss Calligary, a "Bible gatherer," who, to a certain degree, both befriends and abandons Felicia, and annoys Mr. Hilditch. In some ways, Miss Calligary and those like her are more tarnished than Hilditch. Hilditch at least has a reason for acting the way he does, a very good one. Miss Calligary apparently does not.

Trevor heightens the suspense in Felicia’s Journey by giving us information only on a "need to know" basis. For example, we don’t immediately learn that Felicia is pregnant, though astute readers might certainly suspect it, and it’s certainly not a plot spoiler to know this information before you read the book. And though it’s pretty clear from the get-go that Mr. Hilditch has an evil card or two up his sleeve, we really don’t know for sure until the book is well underway and we’re hooked.

Trevor’s prose is as it always is: spare, unadorned, understated, and devastating. This is a case where "less" really is "more." Quite a bit more.

Felicia’s Journey is a book (and a film starring the brilliant Bob Hoskins as Mr. Hilditch) that’s impossible to forget. It gnaws at you. It begs you to read it "one more time" for the subtext alone, just to see what you’ve missed. Is it William Trevor’s very best work? In my opinion, it’s certainly among the top five, but for me, his masterpiece is still Two Lives, the book that contains the gorgeous Booker shortlisted Reading Turgenev and the very imaginative My House in Umbria. Choosing which of William Trevor’s works is his masterpiece, though, is like choosing which chocolate truffle is most delicious. All are so good, that singling one out is really an impossible task.


Recommend: Absolutely, with no reservations.