Monday, 7 February 2011
Felicia's Journey ~ William Trevor
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.