“All this – the house and the remnants of the pasture land, the seashore below the pale cliffs, the walk along it to the fishing village of Kilauran, the avenue over which the high branches of the chestnut tree now met – was as much part of Everand Gault as the features of his face were, the family traits that quite resembled a few of those in the drawing -room portrait, the smooth dark hair.”
When people ask why I read one of the answers is that it really does have the ability to take you away from the here and now into foreign lands, eras and into different people’s heads. That might sound like the blurb from the back cover of a particularly cheesy paperback but it can be true. If you want an example of when it works and works well then this rather sad but thoughtful story from William Trevor would be hard to beat.
You are gently taken into a rural Ireland of the 1920s where the landed aristocracy face being burnt and hounded out of their homes because of their English connections. The Gault family fall into that bracket because the wife of the head of the household the Everhard Gault, The Captain, happens to be English. The story starts with the captain shooting in the shoulder one of the three men that had come up to the house with the intention of burning it down.
His attempts, via the priest, to calm down the situation fail and the family, husband, wife and their daughter Lucy, face leaving their home. But Lucy rejects the idea and plans to run away. But through a twist of fate her attempts to hide are seen instead as an accidental drowning when her clothes are found near the sea. It is a broken hearted husband and wife who leave Ireland and spend the next twenty years travelling across Europe to try and escape their past.
So when Lucy is found near death but brought back it is frustrating that the family cannot be contacted but of course they are trying to escape completely from the past.
But what Trevor manages to do so well is leaving gaps in which the unsaid manages to fill. So the marriage, although loving, has the potential resentments that had she not been English and had she been prepared to go back to Ireland then…
That feeling of what if echoes round the book and what if Lucy had managed to find love instead of letting it go? What is she had been able to share her feelings instead of letting them stay bottled up?
Under the surface of what can and should be said in that class in that situation in Ireland there are tensions bubbling up which Trevor allows the reader to share. That is where the talent in this story lies because on the face of it, if you were to summarise it, the story appears to be relatively straightforward. What takes it far away from the ordinary is the characterisation not just of people but time and place and the ability to leave some incredibly large things unsaid hanging just to the side of the open page.
There is an epic feeling to this story that you sense would have made it twice as long had it been written a century earlier. The echoes of the past are also strong because this is set in 1920s Ireland with a family facing upheaval as the country starts to turn on the hated English and burn the wealthy out of their homes.
The way Trevor writes a picturesque rural Ireland opens up to the reader and you find your self in the big house, down by the sea and watching the cows as they are herded into the milking shed.
But at the heart of this rural world things are not going well and as the Gault family prepares to pack up and leave for the safer shores of England the father and mother are left distraught after their daughter Lucy runs away to try to delay their departure.
Her clothes found on the beach indicate a drowning and so the heartbroken Gault parents head off on a tour of Europe running away from their grief. of course had they perhaps been more open with the reasons for leaving their daughter might have understood them more and been prepared to go with them.
As it is her disappearance rips the family apart and her reappearance sets things up for a fascinating second half.