by William Trevor
Viking, 213 pp., $21.95
“Aren’t you the pretty one!” Dirty Keery used to call out, lying in wait in Devlin’s Lane…he said it to all the girls going by, trying to get them to come close to him. And he was blind in any case.
Felicia, at seventeen, has not received many compliments from sighted men. She has, her girlfriends say, “the face for a nun.” Her mother is dead, and she lives in a small Irish town with her father, her brothers, and her great-grandmother, with whom she shares a room. For three months she has been unemployed. She used to work at a canning factory, but it closed down. There’s nothing doing at Erin Floor Coverings, or Hickey’s Hotel, or Maguire Pigs. The way ahead looks bleak, a continuation of thankless drudgery for her family, her unemployment pay going into the common pot and her personal freedom narrowing to vanishing point.
William Trevor is the bard of loss, the poet of failed lives and ruinous impulses. His usual characters are small people, who do not have control over their own lives and who are defined by the words that other people use about them: “Strange when you think of it, how people are given their names. Strange, how people are allocated a life.” In thirteen novels and eight short-story collections he has shown himself a close observer, a fine stylist, a master psychologist. In Felicia’s Journey, which in the UK won the prestigious Whitbread Prize, he brings all these qualities into play, and adds to them a teasing manipulation of the reader’s sensibilities, so that the book has the elegant tensions of a high-class thriller. It is a departure, his publishers claim, and certainly it has brought him a new and wider public; but the preoccupations of the novel are traceable in his earlier work, and the author’s voice is as dry and fastidious as ever.
William Trevor was born in 1928, to a Protestant family in Cork. During his childhood his family moved often, because of his father’s job with a bank, and he has said, “Every town in Ireland feels like mine.” The outsider and the transient visitor, which Trevor has always been, sees the particularity of each community, the tiny features that make it just itself and no other place; so when he describes Felicia’s town, we see at once its public houses, its single coffee shop, its dental surgery with the tarnished brass plate; we see the streets that confine and limit her, yet safely enclose her, and we can identify her place in the family, in the town, in history. Felicia’s great-grandfather was a Republican who died in the 1916 rising, leaving his wife of one month expecting a child. That wife is now barely sentient, an old woman kept in a back room; but in the evenings her grandson, Felicia’s father, turns over scrapbooks with mementos of the dead patriot and his friends, and …