Monday, 7 February 2011

Felicia's Journey ~ William Trevor

It is to my great shame that I have to admit that I have never before read anything by William Trevor.  What is more, had this not been on the list for my Monday Book Group, I wouldn't have read Felicia's Journey, his 1994 Whitbread winning novel.  The loss has been mine.

It is hard to say anything about the book without spoiling it for those of you who have yet to read it, but I will try and give you a flavour of what it is about.  Eighteen year old Felicia has left her native Ireland to search in the English Midlands for her boyfriend, Johnny Lysaght.  No one in her home town approves of the relationship and she has travelled without any real knowledge of where she is going or how she is going to find Johnny once she arrives.  In the course of her search she encounters Mr Hilditch, a strange and lonely older man who befriends her for reasons of his own which, inevitably, the reader suspects from the first.  As we learn more about Hilditch's background and the reasons for his peculiar life style, so we become more and more concerned for what the outcome of their chance meeting might be.  At the end, despite the fact that Felicia appears to be in a very difficult situation indeed, it is possibly to argue that had events turned out as we anticipated, everything could have been so much worse.  What would in any other circumstances be a downbeat, if not tragic, ending has almost the feeling of victory, certainly of relief.

The greatness of this novel, however, lies not so much in the story that is told, but in the manner of the telling.  Trevor, is celebrated for his short story writing and there is much about this book that is reminiscent of the art of the short story writer.  Paramount is the emotional attachment that the author creates between the reader and the characters.  It is impossible not to react to each of them as if you actually had to have dealings with them yourself.  For example, at one point Felicia finds shelter with a group of religious fanatics who harass those they consider likely to hear their message with a vigour that is so real I wanted to pick the phone up as I read and demand that the police remove them from my doorstep NOW.  (You will be relieved to know that I restrained myself.)

In terms of the written style Trevor wastes not a single word and in half a sentence he can paint an entire picture.

Wouldn't you go up on the deck?

asks an anonymous women in the first couple of lines and immediately you know you're on the ferry coming from Ireland to England.  He doesn't need to tell you anything more.

Or you might get a more extended passage that conjures up an entire way of living.  The whole is too long to quote, but there is what amounts to an elegy on the homeless which begins:

Hidden away, the people of the streets drift into sleep induced by alcohol or agitated by despair, into dreams that carry them back to the lives that once were theirs.  They lie with their begging notices still beside them, with enough left of a bottle to ease the waking moment, with pavement cigarette butts to hand.

The power of the writing is in the placement of a single word, 'pavement cigarette butts'.  That word pavement tells an entire story with nothing else needing to be added.

Inevitably, Felicia's journey turns out to be more than a journey from one side of the Irish Sea to the other, but neither is it simply a journey from innocence to experience.  It could be argued that in some ways Felicia is as naive at the end of the book as she is at the beginning, or conversely you could argue that she had lost innocence before the book begins.  If pushed I would have to say that I think what she finds is a level of independence, a voice and a will of her own.  If you read her story you may feel that by the end she has lost just about everything except her life and yet I can't help feeling that she has found something that if not exactly what you would want for her is in someways at least a life of her own.

The power of the experience of reading this book has been such that it will be some time before I read another Trevor novel.  You cannot live a reading life at that level of intensity for very long.  But I most certainly will read other works of his and am only glad that because of my own previous folly I have his entire back list to work through.


  1. So glad you loved this one. I've only read a handful of Trevor's work but I do admire his restrained style of writing. "The Story of Lucy Gault" still haunts me YEARS after reading it.

  2. I've not read Trevor before and can't say that I have ever been interested but now you have me curious!

  3. I think I've read only one Trevor short story, one that was published in The New Yorker, probably. I should read more, I know, especially as I will be traveling to Ireland this year!

  4. Kimbofo, One of the other people in the group yesterday mentioned 'Lucy Gault' as a work that had stayed with ever since she'd read it. I have half a thought that that is where I nail go next, but I know Im going to have to wait a while before I'm able to pick it up.

    Stefanie, it might be an idea to try one of the short stories first and see if you appreciate that. I'm sure you will love the writing, but the subject matter can definitely be difficult.

    Dorothy, one of the things we found ourselves discussing yesterday was to what extent Trevor had actually caught the flavour of modern Ireland. Apparently he has lived in the UK for a long time. I think you might find the country rather different, especially if you are only in the major cities.

  5. I haven't read William Trevor for a while now, so thank you for reminding me how good he is and that I must look out more of his work. How well he captures Ireland I couldn't say, but he definitely captures humanity. I agree that this one is extraordinary, and I most definitely support the recommendation of Lucy Gault.

  6. Hi and thank you for visiting my blog recently :-)

    I too have never read this author so this will have to be remedied. Thank you for a fascinating post!

  7. Fleur, if you haven't read trevor for some time then yes, it might be an idea to go back. I'm sure he is a writer you have to take in small doses at fairly long intervals. I intend to read more, but I can't see that it will be before this time next year.

    RR, Nice to meet you. You might want to start with a short story and see if you like his style. One of the very interesting things about 'Felicia's Journey' is that you can tell it's the work of a consummate short story writer.

  8. I have heard vague murmurings about Trevor, but your evocative words and the passages you pull convince me that he needs to go on my short list for investigation! The excerpt giving a kind of panoramic view of the street people reminded me a bit of the opening chapter of Irène Némirovsky's Suite française.

  9. Emily, I'm sure you would really appreciate Trevor's writing and yes, you're right about the Nemirovsky link. Thanks, I hadn't thought about that.

  10. I completely agree with your review, Annie.

    William Trevor is one of my favorite authors. I've read everything he's ever published. I think he's as much the master of the short story (and the novella) as was Chekhov.

    I can cast a vote for "The Story of Lucy Gault" as well, though I think Trevor's masterpieces are contained in the volume titled "Two Lives." The volume contains the novellas "Reading Turgenev" (shortlisted for the Booker) and "My House in Umbria."

    I don't know if you know, Annie, but "My House in Umbria" was adapted into a wonderful film starring the great Maggie Smith, and "Felicia's Journey" was adapted to film by Atom Egoyan, with the wonderful Bob Hoskins playing Mr. Hilditch perfectly.

  11. Hello Annie,

    I am ashamed to admit that I have always passed over William Trevor's work, although 'The Story Of Lucy Gault', was given to me as a gift and still resides in the darkest recesses of one of my bookeshelves.

    Your review of 'Felicia's Journey' has made me interested enough to want to search out a copy pretty soon and read both it and 'Lucy Gault'.

    I love books that delve into the human psyche and Mr. Hilditch sounds like an amazing example of everything that is sinister and dark in a person.

    Thank you for such an informative review and recommendation.


  12. Gabrielle, thank you for the recommendation. I would like to read some more Trevor fairly soon but didn't feel 'strong' enough to tackle 'The Story of Lucy Gault' so quickly after 'Felicia's Journey'. I will look out for 'Two Lives'. I didn't realise that 'My House in Umbria' was a Trevor; I do know of the film. I'm not sure I could watch a film of 'Felicia's Journey' but I do belong to a book group who has a special meeting once a year where we discuss the book in the morning, share a picnic lunch, see the film in the afternoon and then discuss the adaptation over tea. Either of these might fit into our plans.

    Yvonne, the interesting thing about Hilditch is that as well as being entirely sinister he is also a person you wish was not so evil. It is the blend of the two that makes the book so exceptional.