- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 22, 2002

Writing about William Trevor's novel "Elizabeth Alone" almost 30 years ago, I noted the Irish writer's "unerring eye for the ridiculous," his ability to combine the comical with the serious, to extract the essence of human nature from what at first could seem like a string of jokes. I was reminded of Laurence Sterne, while being impressed at the author's ability to identify life's essences in ordinary lives.
Now all this time later in, "The Story of Lucy Gault," I see principally the last of these qualities. And why not, I suppose, since in the meantime a writer like Alice Munro has been compared to Mr. Trevor for her uncanny ability to milk the stuff of tragedy and redemption from equally ordinary lives, if Canadian ones rather than Irish.
This latest novel of Mr. Trevor's is one of the saddest, if also engaging, you will ever read: the tale of an attractive but independent-minded young girl who brings down upon herself a tragedy that reechoes through the remaining lives of the people directly involved and is, often innocently, certainly unknowingly, compounded by these relatives and others. Too many of them go to their graves fearful of having been the cause of all the trouble.
Many years are needed for a complex plot to unwind. The story takes off in 1921, when the so-called Troubles in Ireland were at their worst, and toward the end of the book the writer finds a place to insert the word Internet. During this time the Irish Civil War and World War II come and go, as the world takes its course decade after decade.
Young Lucy lives an idyllic life on her Protestant family's ample estate bordering the sea. An only child, she is early accustomed to amusing herself: running about the strand and among the rocks with their seaweed and sea anemonies and other watery things; lying on the grass beside the little stream further up toward the fine old house; wandering in the orchard where the Kerry Pippins grow along with other apple varieties; climbing up into the woods above the house, where she has her own secret place close by a spring bearing fresh water.
Often accompanying Lucy on her jaunts is one of the neighboring O'Reilly family's dogs, a lonely fellow, half setter and half retriever, who never is given a name. One time, when Lucy, willful as well as appealing, is bathing alone against the rules, the unnamed dog, running up and down the beach behind her, picks up and conceals one of her sandals. Another day, he makes off with her summer vest. In each case, she succeeds in making substitutions without arousing notice at home.
The household is a sunny one. Capt. Everard Gault's military career ended prematurely after he sustained shrapnel wounds in World War I, but he is not otherwise a disappointed man. His place, Lahardane, with its parkland and milk-producing cattle, plus the other chores of being a landowner, provide him satisfaction enough. And besides, this is his home, all he really ever has known.
Heloise Gault, Lucy's mother, is an English beauty, slender in her late 30s, good-natured and kind. She has found happiness in the course of her 13 years as Lahardane's mistress and is as content as her husband. Additionally, a raft of servants, starting with Henry, a man of all work, and his wife Bridget, the cook, dote on little Lucy.
The Gaults have been in Ireland for centuries, so long that their old English origins (maybe Norfolk?) have been dimmed by time. But now, as I mentioned, it is the early 1920s and trouble is in the air for well-to-do Protestant Anglo-Irish families like the Gaults. The grand old houses are being burned to the ground one after another, and the inmates driven out of Ireland. The local Catholics, so far as the Gaults are concerned in the neighboring population centers of Kilauran and Enniseala, do not want them there.
The first sign of trouble at Lahardane is the family's getting up one morning to find their two dogs poisoned, laying bloody in the driveway. Then they are aroused one night by sounds: Three young louts have come with gasoline cans on their bicycles to burn down the house. This was a fairly simple operation: You smashed a window pane, reached in and opened the latch and poured gasoline on the curtains and furniture (pillows containing feathers were ideal for the purpose) and put a match to it.
But the captain, spotting the lads, fires his rifle from an upstairs window. He intends only to shoot over their heads but inadvertently wounds one of them, who is helped away by his retreating mates. This is the mishap triggering all that follows.
From this moment forward, there is nervousness in the air at Lahardane, infecting everyone down, inevitably, to Lucy. More trouble is almost certain to follow. Capt. Gault attempts to make amends (as if they were needed), first through Father Morrissey, the priest in Kilauran, then by visiting the wounded youth's family and offering to pay compensation. In a scene that can only be imagined today, the parents politely serve him tea, but obdurately refuse to reply to anything he says.
Back at Lahardane, Lucy, eavesdropping on her parents' conversation in another room, begins to catch on: They are resigning themselves to packing up and leaving. And sure enough, plans are made, a place is rented in Sussex, additional trunks purchased and packed and other effects prepared for later pickup.
Henry boards up the windows of the house, while the furniture is covered by white sheets. He and Bridget who is one of the shrewder heads in the novel will stay on to keep an eye on the place and take the herd's milk into the commercial collection point. Old Hannah is retired and the young maid Kitty Teresa sent back to her people at Dungarvan, which is reached by a road running above the steep woods behind Lahardane.
But "I'm not going away from Lahardane," protests Lucy over and over again. And she concocts a scheme of her own to foil the Gaults' program of emigration. Packing a bag with food surreptitiously taken from Bridget's supplies and armed with an old black coat of her mother's for warmth, Lucy runs away. Her scheme is to hike up through the woods, past Paddy Lindon's old broken-down cottage and find the road to Dungarvon. There, though she knows not how, she will locate Kitty Teresa, who will bring her back to Lahardane, where her parents will be sufficiently appalled to change their plans and stay on.
But on the way, Lucy has an accident, breaking her ankle and finds herself unable to move far at all. In the general alarm, nobody thinks to look for her in the woods. Instead they search the shore, where the unnamed dog's treasures of Lucy's sandal and summer vest have turned up to suggest a drowning.
Eventually, the Gault parents give up and leave, traveling not to England and Sussex but moving on itinerantly into France, Switzerland and Italy this after severing all their American and English ties and leaving no means to trace them. "Anywhere will do," they tell each other in their grief, and Heloise's Rio Verde shares will enable them to live wherever they wash up.
That is just the beginning of this melancholy tale. Each of the central characters, including Bridget, and even the lout shot at the beginning (his was in fact only a slight flesh wound in the shoulder) comes to believe that he or she is responsible for what occurred. Several, including Horahan, the shot man, never get over their sense of guilt. Lives are unnecessarily blighted, and self-sacrifices made that eventually prove to have been wasted.
The novel has engaging minor characters, not least Aloysius Sullivan, the Gault's Ennislea solicitor. The story has its intellectual and spiritual depths too. Chance is pitted against Mystery, and the spiritual yield to the soul of the paintings of the old Italian masters is opposed to concern for the living. There is redemption, one overarching case in particular.
Mr. Trevor always is a pleasure, you don't need me to tell you that. This complex, beautifully paced novel must rank among the topmost of his (something short of 30 books of one kind or another) achievements.
By William Trevor
Viking, $24.95, 228 pages

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