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The accidents of survival

The Story of Lucy Gault, A Novel, William Trevor, Viking: 228 pp., $24.95

November 17, 2002|Jonathan Levi | Jonathan Levi is a contributing writer to Book Review.

"Captain Everard Gault wounded the boy in the right shoulder on the night of June the twenty-first, nineteen twenty-one." There is something ripely short story-ish about the opening sentence of William Trevor's latest novel, "The Story of Lucy Gault." The single shot suggests a single plot -- a tale of revenge, perhaps, with the precise date of a police blotter, fixed at a distant point in history, an age of exotic names like Everard Gault. But it is a mark of Trevor's widely acknowledged mastery of the numerous ways the English language can affect and manipulate the human mind that he is able to turn this single shooting into a complex and thoroughly extraordinary novel.

The setting is Ireland, of course, County Cork. Everard Gault is a veteran of World War I, Anglo-Irish, landed gentry, with a large house set up above the coast, living with his English-born wife, Heloise, in a genteel comfort afforded by her income. The wounded boy is one of the local lads, driven by indeterminate republican fervor to torch the houses of those richer and more English than he. Everard intended to shoot high, to merely frighten the boy away. Accidents will happen.

The Gaults have little choice after the incident. The wounded boy's family will not accept an apology. Other boys will come and try again to burn the Gaults out. And Everard and Heloise have responsibilities greater than the protection of their house -- namely, a 9-year-old daughter named Lucy. They must abandon Ireland and settle in England.

But Lucy, an independent girl who loves nothing more than to run to the beach with a stray dog and swim naked in the waves, will not go. On the day before they are due to leave Ireland, she decides to run away to the home of a former servant, but trips in the forest and sprains her ankle. Going in search of her, Everard wanders down to the beach. His discovery of a half-buried scrap of his daughter's clothing from an earlier swim leads to tragic misunderstanding. Assuming their daughter has drowned, Everard and Heloise run from Ireland in shock and finality, leaving neither travel plans nor forwarding address. A few weeks later, half-starved and lame, Lucy stumbles out of the woods. Neither the servants, who have been left to close up the house, nor the solicitor who has been entrusted with little more than the Gaults' departure, are prepared for the reappearance of this demi-ghost. Attempts are made to contact her parents. But the misfortune initiated by Everard's rifle shot is too great to engender any hope. The parents will not return.

Years pass. In Italy, the parents sit in oblivion, desperately trying to ignore the tragedy on that distant green island. "Expert now at altering sentences already begun, or allowing them to wither or smiling them away, they gave themselves to the unfamiliarity of the place they had arrived in as invalids of distress, to its rocky hills and narrow streets, to a language they learnt as children do, to the simplicities of where they dwelt."

In Ireland, Lucy grows up tended by the last two servants, avoided by schoolchildren and villagers and steeped in her guilt. "The tragedy called down upon herself by a child, and what had since become her life, made a talking point, and seemed to strangers to be the material of legend."

Legends need endings. Were "The Story of Lucy Gault" simply a short story, there would be only two possible endings: reconciliation or not. But Trevor is a more ingenious and more subtly ambitious writer. As he pulls time forward to unveil the strange sideshows that Lucy's unthinking escapade has engendered, narrative gives way to poetry.

Thirty years after the fact, as the 1940s give way to the '50s, the wounded boy -- a veteran himself of yet a second world war -- returns to the scene of his shooting wearing a haunting stigma. In Europe, Everard paces in Flanders Fields, revisiting "the places of his war. Tramping over soil fed by the blood of the men he had led and whose faces now stirred in his memory, it was his wife's response that came -- as if in compensation for too little said before -- when he wondered why his wandering had led him back to these old battlefields: in his sixty-ninth year he was establishing his survivor's status."

Eventually the survivors meet. Eventually the distinction between perpetrator and victim, actor and acted-upon, fades as time moves the story out of the mists of a past of dim communication into a present age of telephones and e-mails. What remains is tragedy, stubborn and unyielding, struggling for satisfaction -- and the brilliant heroine that Trevor has created in Lucy, as strong and solitary as Bronte's Cathy and Sophocles' Antigone, but ten times as resilient. A survivor.

The search for reconciliation, for a lasting peace, is as elusive, as Irish and Catholic as it is human and Earth-wide. But the poetry of Trevor's novel is aimed above politics, even if it strikes fully at the heart.

"Love is greedy when it is starved," Heloise tells her husband one day, many years into their exile. "Don't you remember, Everard? Love is beyond all reason when it is starved." Nursing love back from starvation, as Lucy Gault discovers, comes at the mercy of time "fickle in its arrangements," and it certainly is no short story.

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