“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 relives the sacrifice, and reads the words of Eamon De Valera:
“The Ireland which we have dreamed of would be the home of a people who valued material wealth only as the basis of right living, of a people who were satisfied with frugal comfort and devoted their leisure to the things of the spirit; a land whose countryside would be bright with cosy homesteads, whose fields would be joyous with the sounds of industry, with the romping of sturdy children, the contests of athletic youths, the laughter of comely maidens; whose firesides would be forums for the wisdom of old age. It would, in a word, be the home of a people living the life that God desires men should live.”
That is the dream; the reality, for Felicia, is the watery greens bubbling on the stove, the empty purse, the procession of days. To her amazement, a boy called Johnny Lysaght asks her out for a drink. Johnny works in England, and has come home to see his mother.
Trevor does not present Johnny as a cold-hearted seducer. He is just a normal young man who takes his opportunities in life, and who likes to cover his tracks: who needs to cover his tracks, because in fact he is a soldier in the British Army. Felicia’s father knows this, or strongly suspects it, and tries to warn his daughter off. But Felicia isn’t listening; she has the stubbornness often found in innocent people. Humble, completely lacking in confidence, Felicia is dazzled by Johnny’s attention—and very soon she is pregnant, too.
It is a stock situation, but William Trevor makes us feel quite freshly what it might be like to be as vulnerable as Felicia is now. There is no inward rebellion; she does not fight against her situation, because her expectations are so low: “Why should she have supposed that the happiness his love had given her was her due, and free?”
But the fact of her pregnancy must be dealt with somehow. She is sure that Johnny will help her as soon as he knows. He has somehow—and she believes it’s not deliberate—taken his leave of her without a forwarding address. All she knows is that he works at a lawn-mower factory somewhere in the English Midlands. His sour, lonely mother will not help her; she doesn’t want another woman in her Johnny’s life. Who can Felicia tell? There is a conversation with her father that might have led somewhere, but didn’t.
“You’re no more than a child, Felicia,” her father commented eventually, on his feet and already going from the kitchen. He hesitated by the door, as if about to say something else, and just then her brothers returned from Myles Brady’s and sat down at the table to eat slices of a pan loaf and spreadable cheese, which every night at this time they did. Her father closed the door behind him.
There are passages like this throughout Felicia’s Journey, exquisitely weighted and balanced like intricate little machines. The words are small, ordinary ones, and it is the rhythm, the juxtaposition, the selection that give them their pathos: the slightly Martian quality of the expression “spreadable cheese,” the pushing of the verb to the limit of the sentence. The positioning serves to emphasize the heavy, habitual quality of the brothers’ action, its persistence into the years ahead, as if the boys and their nightly munching are predestined creatures; the sentence’s dying fall anticipates the closing of the door. That door will close again and again, as love and life are denied, as men take their leave with words unsaid; and there is nothing for Felicia to do but what many Irish girls have done before her, and take the boat to England.
Felicia’s Journey now becomes a novel of deracination. The girl has no idea how to negotiate what lies before her. She cannot understand the local accent, and she has never imagined such places as the sprawling conurbations through which she must trail to find her baby’s father; she sees that “there’s never a stretch of empty countryside.” She cannot find a lawnmower factory anywhere near the place she vaguely remembers that Johnny mentioned. Perhaps, then, a shop that sells lawn mowers, or parts for them, or other requisites for gardeners? Or perhaps machines of some other type? Or perhaps she should be looking in some other town? Yet the towns run into one another, and the concerned feed her false clues, and the self-absorbed don’t listen to her. The landscape through which she now moves seems beyond the human scale, not built to be inhabited.
The industrial estate is an endless repetition of nondescript commercial buildings, each with a forecourt for parking. Trade names blazon: Toyota, Ford, Toys Я Us, National Tyre and Autocare, Kwik-Fit, Zanussi, Renault Trucks, Pipewise, Readybag, Sony, Comet. Next to Britannia Scaffolding are Motorway Exhausts, then C & S Roofing, Deep Drilling Services and Tomorrow’s Cleaning Today. At an intersection a little further on, Allparts Vehicle Dismantlers share the corner with OK Blast & Spray Ltd.
The concrete roads of the estate are long and straight. Nobody casually walks them for the pleasure of doing so. No dogs meet other dogs….She tramps wearily back to the town, on the grass verge beside a wide dual carriageway. An endless chain of lorries and cars passes close, the noise of their engines a roar that every few moments rises to a crescendo…
This is the contemporary England that most novelists don’t care for. Here’s no rural calm to be shattered, no smart urban wickedness to relish; they see only the banal. Trevor sees the banal and investigates it. The gigantic soot-stained mechanism of the industrial revolution has crumbled away, and what industry remains is “light”: jaunty, even, with its brightly unimaginative logos and its out-of-town sites sprinkled with struggling saplings, its light-handed women workers and its bright-eyed zeal to create every day some new need it can fulfill. Small towns are dying or dead, eviscerated by planners; life and commerce are conducted on the margins, in giant shopping malls, on the industrial estates that Trevor describes. Those without personal transport—unless they have Felicia’s uncomplaining stamina—are excluded from these places: so they are not for the poor or the old or the sick or for those who are—for any other reason—pedestrians. They breed only fleeting, casual contacts; they are for the shuffling of resources, the exchange of cash. They are for people whose wants are definable, material, and affordable.
The landscape of Felicia’s Journey was created, roughly speaking, during the Thatcher years. William Trevor has no overt political agenda; he is not that sort of writer. He is too old and wily an operator to settle for the small returns of the satirical novel, or to stifle the universality of his story with ephemeral complaint. But the contrasts between Irish and English society are strongly drawn. On the one side, there is cohesiveness and continuity: there is also suffocating conformity, and the backward-looking intolerance which makes Felicia’s departure a necessity. Across the sea in England, there are communities that barely hang together, and the individual life goes unremarked. In England you can disappear, you can lose your very name. Trevor’s Ireland does not fulfill De Valera’s dream. But England has never had such an ideal in the first place; there was no dreaming height from which England could slide. When our leaders articulate a vision of England, it is a nostalgic, retrospective one. The best is always past.
In the course of her search for Johnny, Felicia will meet many eccentrics, misfits, and derelicts, so that—in typical Trevor fashion—the painful story is shot through with bizarre black comedy. Just occasionally—and it is practically the only reservation one can feel about the novel’s effectiveness—there seem to be too many of these minor actors on the stage. When, for example, Felicia finds herself living in a household of religious cultists, the reader gets distracted trying to work out whether any of them are of long-term consequence. This flaw is small and understandable. When the eccentrics are simmering nicely, there’s always a temptation to throw one more in the stew. One could propose a rule of thumb for novelists: if you invent more than three real oddities, and mean to put them on the page together, waste one or leave him over for another novel: grotesques are transferable.