History: This novel was written in 2002.Plot: It begins with Lucy, on a night in 1921. She is the only child of an Anglo-Irish land owner on the coast of Cork County. It starts during the Irish War of Independence, when Protestant landowners caught in the battle between the IRA and the British army had their houses burned. The place is under martial law and Captain Gault is disturbed by young arsonists from the nearby village. When he fires a warning shot with his old rifle, he injures a boy in the shoulder. Out of fear, the family plans to move to England. Lucy is not told why her family wishes to move and longs for the house she was kept from and the sea close by. On the eve of their departure, she hides in the woods. Due to a series of events, her parents are led to believe that she drowned in the sea.
By the time she is discovered, her parents are gone. She thus gets what she wished for, to live in the house, being taken care of by the house servants turned caretaker-farmers. Lucy lives a very lonely life, reading books and keeping bees. She feels very guilty about running away and thus feels that she deserves her loneliness. When another character, Ralph, tries to relieve her of her sad life, she feels that she cannot let him love her without, one of the characters opines, getting forgiveness from her parents. Her father returns after the Second World War, having spent the previous years in Italy and Switzerland, too late to salvage her happiness. They settle into an uneasy companionship, with too much unspoken.
Having lost the love of her life, she forms a bond with the person who was wounded by her father. Lucy spends many years visiting the asylum where the person is incarcerated in his confusion and his silence. Lucy in old age sees people with phones to their ears and hears on the wireless about the Internet, and wonders what it is.
Review: "The story of" is a telling phrase for the title of this gravely beautiful, subtle and haunting Irish novel. It means not only what happens to Lucy Gault, but that what happened to her has become a story, first a local tale, told and retold, and then a legend, "waiting to pass into myth". And it's an ironic phrase, too, because no one in this quiet book is outspoken. Silence, secrets, muteness tell the loudest stories here.
To tell "the story of" the novel is to give it away, and readers who prefer to be startled when they read it should look away now: for this is the story (in its own rather formal, antiquated words) "of a great, and unexpected calamity". But it is also, over its 70-year spread, the story of how "calamity shaped a life".
It begins in the summer of 1921, in County Cork, during the Troubles, when the big houses of the Protestant landowners were being set on fire, caught in the battle between the IRA and the British army. This is the Ireland of Elizabeth Bowen's The Last September, where the isolated Anglo-Irish families saw their own and their neighbours' houses burn, and many of them left.
At Lahardane, Captain Everard Gault, a veteran of the great war, shoots at a group of intruders, and wounds one of them. A gentle character - "a simple man to whom a complicated thing has happened" - he is remorseful, not belligerent. He knows the family of the child he shot, an unstable boy called Horahan, whose life will shadow the Gaults for ever. He knows the bitter history of families like the Gaults in Ireland, of "the sins of the past", "the aspirations of the dispossessed ignored".
He and his wife Heloise (stoical daughter of an army widow) decide to abandon Lahardane to the care of Henry and Bridget, house-servants turned caretaker-farmers. But eight-year-old Lucy Gault, in love with her home, can't understand that the Gaults have to leave because "they don't want us here". She runs away, and, by a series of awful chances, is thought to have died. The parents leave for a nomadic life in Europe. Lucy returns, and is looked after by Henry and Bridget, while the local solicitor (very well done, like all Trevor's anxious, small-town professionals) tries, for years, to track down the Gaults.
Lucy Gault's strange, isolated life, a sleeping beauty in the Big House, reading all the old novels, wearing her mother's white dresses, cut off from the ordinary life of the nearby seaside town (a fictional Youghal), is intercut with the futile wanderings of her parents, "playing at being dead". Unable to talk about the past, they take what consolation they can in Italian art and life, and are tremendously, tenderly careful with each other.
Like them, Lucy suffers from terrible remorse. In the novel's heartbreaking middle section, she falls in love, but refuses happiness: she feels her life has to be on hold unless and until she is forgiven. Her love-scenes with Ralph, a poignant figure, are made up of negatives: "They would not have met if he had not lost his way: Lucy tried to think of that, of their never meeting, of not knowing that Ralph existed. It seemed to her that he had come out of nowhere, and she wondered if when he left Lahardane he would return to nowhere and not come back. She would never forget him."
Every sentence they speak has a "not" or a "never" in it: "I never want to go." "I could never not love you." Ralph's desperate letters are the only utterances that try to break through the silences in the book. After her accident, the child Lucy - like the traumatised child in Trevor's novella "My House in Umbria" - is unable to speak. Her parents live their exiled lives imprisoned by "what must not be spoken of".
When Ralph marries, he never tells his wife about Lucy, and when her father returns, they don't talk of her loss: "None of that was ever said." Henry, the cow-farmer, has the most undemonstrative face in the county: "More goes on in a ham," someone remarks of him. As a child, Lucy learns deaf-and-dumb language from a fisherman, and that's what these characters speak in.
Lucy's farewell to Ralph has the same heart-tearing quality as the loss of the beloved in Trevor's great novella, "Reading Turgenev", or in The Silence in the Garden, set in the same kind of past-haunted house. In all these stories, as it says in "Reading Turgenev", "only love matters in the bits and pieces of a person's life".
However, Lucy's renunciation isn't the end, or even the point, of the story. After the war, Everard Gault returns, just too late to salvage her happiness. They settle into an uneasy companionship, with too much unspoken. But in middle age, Lucy finds an unexpected resource. The Gaults' story has kept pace with the dark delusions of the boy who was shot, Horahan, who believes that he did set fire to the house and kill the child.
It looks as if this may turn out to be one of Trevor's ghoulish scenarios, of a maniac stalking his prey, as in Felicia's Journey. But The Story of Lucy Gault is, in the end, about consolation, not destruction. Lucy becomes a sort of Protestant saint, and spends many years visiting the asylum where Horahan is incarcerated in his confusion and his silence: like so many others in this story, he is "the man who didn't want to speak".
Both of them are victims of Ireland's politics. The inextricable link between the Catholic boy brought up to be a revolutionary and the isolated Protestant girl, both "petrified" in their past, could be read - if Trevor was that sort of explicit commentator - as metaphors for a colonial history. Certainly their fates are set against the changing, ordinary, vigorous life of the little town (scene of so many Trevor short stories), which is briskly moving into the 21st century.
Lucy in old age sees people with phones to their ears and hears on the wireless about the internet, and wonders what it is. Hers is an Ireland of keening fishermen, ruined graveyards, and John McCormack singing "Down by the Salley Gardens", not of tourism, dotcom businesses, real estate, and the euro. She is living in the past - and perhaps her author, long absent from Ireland, could be reproached for that, too.
This has a different tone from that other wonderful recent novel of provincial rural Ireland, John McGahern's That They May Face the Rising Sun. McGahern is bleaker and darker, less romantic, than William Trevor. There are fewer consolations for his characters, and they have to live in the present. Like so much of Trevor's work, this is a story of the past, of memory, and of how time works.
Time is the destroyer: "Time has settled our hash for us," Captain Everard says to Horahan. "The past was the enemy." But time is also the appeaser: "What happened simply did", Lucy comes to accept. A woman who "should have died as a child" outlives and survives what happened to her. "Instead of nothing there is what there is." Story turns into legend, as in the Gault family graveyard, now long overgrown: "Only the myths would linger, the stories that were told."
Opening Line: Captain Everard Gault wounded the boy in the right shoulder on the night of June the twenty-first, nineteen twenty-one.”
Closing Line: “Her companions, while she watches the fading of the day.”
Quotes: “Memories can be everything if we choose to make them so. But you are right: you mustn't do that. That is for me, and I shall do it.”