William Trevor’s faultless precision with words achieves force and intimacy. His prose style, as concise as it is vivid, uses a minimum number of words. Because of this economy, Trevor’s fiction demands strict attention from the reader; in fact, one of his hallmark techniques is to conjure a pivotal event only by mentioning its aftermath. In The Story of Lucy Gault, another of his novels in which not one word seems out of place, he magically depicts some 80 years in only 228 pages.
The book is set in County Cork, Ireland, much of it in and near the fictional town of Enniseala. It opens in 1921 during the Irish Troubles when the Irish Revolutionary Army (IRA) and the British Army are engaged in a pernicious and bloody war over the partitioning of Ireland. (The British favor the partition treaty while a large portion of Irish insists on holding out for an undivided and free Ireland.) The novel concludes early in the 21st Century, when townspeople and tourists mingle on Enniseala’s streets, many of them chatting on cell phones.
At the outset of The Story of Lucy Gault, Anglo/Irish Captain Everard Gault, his English wife Heloise, and their nine-year-old daughter Lucy take center stage against the backdrop of Lahardane, an imposing, grey-stoned Georgian house near Enniseala. Recently one “big house” after another has been torched by IRA arsonists, and the Gaults’ sheep dogs have been poisoned.
Gault is standing guard one warm June night when IRA arsonists approach the house. Intending to fire warning shots over their heads, he accidentally wounds one of them, the young soldier, Horahan. Expecting revenge Gault and Heloise decide to flee Lahardane and move to England, leaving behind the farm, the cattle, and their loyal Irish servants Henry and his wife Bridget. The decision devastates young Lucy, and in an inconsolable and out-of-control moment, she runs away.
Skillfully, Trevor writes of the misapprehension upon which the plot hinges. Lucy, it transpires, ventures deep into the woods above the sea and there suffers a broken ankle. Searchers discover Lucy’s sandal and sweater on a cliff overlooking the sea. The Gaults understandably conclude that she has drowned, and after several grief-stricken weeks they journey not to England but to the European Continent. They cannot bear the thought of remaining in the place where they lost their only child. Lucy somehow finds a little nourishment in the woods, and when she is found she is barely alive. But time and the loving care of Henry and Bridget gradually restore her health, though for the rest of her long life she will limp. Trevor frequently uses as a theme the notion of time as a restorative force.
While Trevor seldom requires much “suspension of disbelief” from his readers, the fact that Gault and Heloise remain untraceable for the next quarter-century perhaps has a degree of unreality to it. But for the sake of experiencing Trevor at his best, most readers will accept The Story of Lucy Gault’s central chain of events. Also, discerning readers will recognize that the novel is set decades prior to the internet age. There was no strict passport control at borders, no credit card receipts definitively placing a person in a business concern at a precise time.
In mournful solicitude for each other, Gault and Heloise mention neither Lucy nor Lahardane. With self-imposed discipline, they have made Italian art and Italian life their focus. Lawyers, detectives and relatives meet with dead ends in a search that becomes more futile as each year passes. Clearly, the Gaults are playing the cards they thought they had been dealt, and in a characteristically Irish way, they are keeping faith with what has already occurred. During their exile Heloise dies of influenza. Captain Gault has “more than once” composed letters to Henry and Bridget, but “each time… drawn back when the moment of posting came.”
Seamlessly Trevor juggles three separate story lines in the novel: Lucy’s parents’ stoical endurance of her loss; the unfolding of Lucy’s limited and tragic life; and Horahan’s descent into self-loathing and madness.
In an understated yet emotion-packed scene, Gault walks through the front door of Lahardane in 1950, to be met by the astonished Henry and Bridget, and a reserved woman in her late thirties. “Who are you?” she asks him. For the duration of Gault’s absence, Lucy has lived an isolated, disappointing life, spending her days reading old novels and wearing her mother’s white dresses. Father and daughter settle into an uneasy companionship, not speaking of the tragedy or of Lucy’s only romantic relationship. When they were in their twenties, Lucy and Ralph, the live-in tutor to a pair of local boys, had fallen in love. Lucy breaks up with him because she believes that her emotional energies must be employed solely in keeping vigil for her parents.
As the years pass Lucy evolves into a figure of pity. Summer tourists glimpse her solitary figure walking on the strand or among the rocks, and listen eagerly when locals tell her tragic story. However, perhaps the world has become more tolerant because, as Trevor points out, “They did not condemn, as a previous generation of strangers had, a wayward child whose capriciousness had brought it all about.”
Surprisingly, it is the IRA arsonist, Horahan, who gives purpose to Lucy’s final years. Horahan has grown delusional and believes that in 1921 he and his companions succeeded in burning Lahardane to the ground, and that in the carnage of their actions the child Lucy was killed. There is rich symmetry in the fact that Horahan’s life has been based on a misapprehension just as surely as the Gaults’ lives have been. Like an angel of mercy, Lucy spends many years visiting and comforting Horahan in the asylum where he is incarcerated. Trevor notes, “Her visits were the joy in that inmate’s life, an old keeper said years later, before they pulled the place down. A flicker in the dark, he said, even though the inmate never knew who she was.”
The final chapters’ depiction of consolation serves as a powerful counterpoint to the opening of the novel with its representation of destruction.