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The Story of Lucy Gault

by William Trevor
228 pages,
ISBN: 0676975445


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Instead of Passion, Petit-Point Embroidery
by Gerald Lynch

The first calamitous act of this heart-wrenching story occurs on the evening of "June the twenty-first, nineteen twenty-one," as the opening sentence precisely dates it (and ominously so in its doubling of the number). This marker begins the story of Lucy Gault in the time of the first worst twentieth-century "Troubles" between the English and the Irish. One night Lucy's father fires a warning shot at some local boys who've come to convince him that he and his Anglo-Irish family should quit the big Irish house Gaults have occupied for generations, or die in it. The dogs were poisoned on an earlier visit, and this time the boys carry kerosene. Gault's warning shot hits one of the boys in the shoulder. Despite subsequent efforts to defuse the situation with apology and bribery, WWI veteran Captain Everard Gault and his wife, Heloise, decide that they, like their gentry neighbours, had better get out of Ireland.
Although Gaults built the big house, Lahardane, and have occupied it for generations, in the calamitous course of Irish history they remain interlopers, intolerable conqueror-settlers to Republican patriots. Masterfully, Trevor traces the historical situation in the first few pages, from Evarard's point of view (Trevor's easing in and out of different points of view is a treat in itself), sketching his journey from bemusement at the locals' resentment, to bafflement, to fear. When the remorseful Captain Gault strategically goes to the injured boy's home with an apology that seeks assurance of security, and sees "barefoot children coming and going in the kitchen, one of them occasionally turning the wheel of the bellows, sparks rising from the turf." The perfectly observed description shows the radical contrast in living conditions, implies the cyclical give-and-take of incessant historical time (the "wheel", the present participles), and the rebuke figuratively smouldering in the land itself, sparking violence. Pointedly, without ironic self-consciousness, Gault designates the boys at whom he shot as "trespassers", as literally they are, but in thinking so he inadvertently opens a snake-pit of postcolonial complexities about who owns what and when. Regardless, and perhaps too cutely, Trevor's narrator insists on downplaying a political reading of his story: "Chance, not wrath, had this summer ordered the fate of the Gaults." That direct statement is simultaneously true and not wholly true; or consideration of the causal event need not compel an either/or choice but allow for bothýthe confluence of political anger and bad luck.
Lucy, the Gault's eight-year-old daughter, is resolutely attached to the only home she has known. And eight is the perfect age for a child to execute a misfiring ruse that seems at first but a prank of protest. Lucy's deception believably leads her parents and their servants to conclude that she is dead, drowned in the sea whose presence is as tangible as another character in the novel. Lucy is left behind by her fleeing parents. She is found near death by servant Henry. He and his wife, Bridget, lovingly raise her at Lahardane, which has been entrusted to their care. There, Lucy keeps the lifelong vigil that is the heart of her story, a story that, with all else mentioned above, includes a love story as sweet in its inception as it is frustrating in its failure to follow the natural course to consummation in marriage. In waiting and waiting somewhat too exactingly for parental absolution, Lucy can be seen as a Penelope figure, one whose rigorously vigilant heart is besieged by true love, and one who eventually takes up petit-point embroidery. Trevor doesn't have Lucy un-stitch her work each night, but his petit point is made no less fancifully for all that: this is also a small modern story of equally epic relevancy, though not a novel aspiring to be another Ulysses.
William Trevor does everything here with an enchantingly light hand and never treats his subject sentimentally. His narrator doesn't suggest that the innocent, culpable, pathetic, brave, persevering, graceful, and literate Lucy can also be read as an allegorical figure of Ireland itself (famous for being figured in abandoned females), yet she also invites such a reading. Trevor's is also a light hand in this sense: in a deceptively accumulating manner, he irradiates his fictional world with the kind of paradoxical illumination that can be achieved only by great writers. The recent stories and novels of this septuagenarian master often end so (think of the assaulted and abandoned Felicia of Felicia's Journey ending on a park bench, as good as encased in a saintly nimbus). And of course the name Lucy, like Lucifer, derives from the Latin lux, meaning light, as Lucy Gault's story is the narrative of light become darkness become dappled light in a tale whose dominant tone is mysterious twilight.
For a review, this one has told too much of the story of Lucy Gault, bare bones though I've tried to keep it (and I've not even mentioned the way in which the shot boy weaves through the whole story). As the novel's self-reflexive title suggests, this is perhaps the most literary, not to say metafictional work (I can imagine Trevor cringing at the expression) in Trevor's body of brilliant stories and novels. The townsfolk of the rural Cork setting are themselves forever telling and re-telling the story of Lucy Gault, trying to tame haphazard reality by making this particular bit of it behave as a distinguishing, if domesticated and overly conventionalized, local story. Trevor is thereby showing how events become stories, how stories become local legend, become cultural myth. He does various kinds of Irish speech to the syllable (Cork dialect, Youghal precisely, country, town, Anglo-Irish), yet, against stereotype, there's scarcely a character who communicates at more than a phrase or two. (For example, to say that the servant Henry is taciturn would be tantamount to remarking that Finnegans Wake is a tricky read.)
But not only the locals are hungry for confirming story; just about everyone connected to the story of Lucy Gault is involved with narrative as a means of mediating exacting reality or of seeking consolation for life's losses. This 'narramania' is true, of course, of the austere author, who well may conceive of himself as a literary artist standing apart from the narrative and paring his nails but whose superior craftsmanship inheres in every sentence (keeping readers ever aware that they are reading a story and, in this way, forcing sentimental readers, such as the present reviewer, to keep their aesthetic distance). It is true of the deaf and dumb fisherman who teaches the eponymous protagonist to communicate with her hands. And again self-reflexively, Lucy Gault's self-exiled parents spend their peripatetic lives seeking comfort in art that tells a story of sainted suffering (Italian painting and sculpture mostly). Distant communication and mis-communication of potentially life-altering letters never reach their destinations or are not read correctly. Writing and story-telling seem to change nothing. Nothing but the reader's consciousness.
Lucy Gault herself is a compulsive reader and re-reader of novels, nineteenth-century novels. In the few references to Austin and Hardy, we as readers are tipped intertextually to the kind of novel Trevor has wrought here: a story of the "calamitous" (Trevor's preferred word) consequences that follow a couple of acts that tragically express the combined workings of Irish history, chance, and the classical conception of a fate that is indistinguishable from character; a story of extended and extensive frustration that comes to rest in a tranquility that is both human and superhuman; a mystery; even a version of hagiography, as the two nuns who visit Lucy in her old age believe there's something saintly about her life-long suffering and tranquility. It's worth noting that the main miracle in the life of St. Lucy, the martyred patron saint of sight and virgins, is her turning into an immovable object when the Roman soldiers come to haul her off, just as Trevor's Lucy remains fixed firmly in her faith at Lahardane.
The best novels still give us fully realized characters who choose to act significantly, whose actions seem inevitable given their humours, with characters and action arising from a setting that further make time and place inextricably bound up in the movement of the whole story from beginning to end. If that kind of story told in an illuminating prose fits your definition of a great novel, then you will agree with this reviewer that William Trevor is one of our greatest living writers. In The Story of Lucy Gault he has told the world yet another magnificent story. Ú
Gerald Lynch's novel, Exotic Dancers, has just been released in paperback.
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