Thursday, 20 May 2004

William Trevor: The Story of Lucy Gault (2002)

Edition: Viking, 2002
Review number: 1241

Lucy Gault is the daughter of a family of Irish landed gentry, a small girl at the time of the civil war which followed the First World War and led to the partition and independence for the south. When attacks are made on their home, her parents (reluctantly) decide that they need to leave the country, but when they set off, Lucy runs away. Becoming convinced (through a series of coincidences) that Lucy is dead, they go away and deliberately lose all contact with those they knew in the area, so that when Lucy is found some days later, they cannot be traced, and so she remains in Ireland, brought up by the Gault's former servants.

This whole episode, which is the basis for the rest of the novel, strikes me as extremely unlikely, no matter how neglected and overgrown the Gault estate had become. The event has so many purposes in The Story of Lucy Gault that it is only possible to touch on a few. One of the most interesting, but not one I am absolutely sure is intended, it that it is possible to identify Lucy, cut off from her parents, with the new Irish state, and her parents with the British; if this is so, then Trevor is painting one of the most pro-British pictures of Ireland (from the point of view of a writer from Eire) ever produced. (It is precisely thinking about what he would be saying that makes me doubtful about the accuracy of the identification.) On a more mundane level, it makes the story of Lucy Gault's otherwise rather uneventful life more interesting, because it has such a strange event near its beginning, and it introduces an element of suspense, the reader being left to wonder when (and whether) she will see her parents again. Lucy's abandonment by her parents is the one thing that raises her story above the commonplace, but I found it so unbelievable that it became the novel's fatal flaw.

Ignoring this, The Story of Lucy Gault is quite well written, though in itself it surely wouldn't justify the quotation on the front cover describing Trevor as "one of the great contemporary novelists". One of the better than average contemporary novelists would be nearer the mark, judging by this novel alone. There are better portrayals of rural Ireland, there are more affecting and believable portrayals of abandoned children (Lucy is an exceptionally self-effacing central character). Presumably, William Trevor has written better novels, but on this evidence I really can't be bothered to find out.

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