Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Reading group: The Story of Lucy Gault by William Trevor

Group member Trevor suggested this novel which begins in 1921 when the head of an Anglo-Irish household shoots at and wounds a potential arsonist, after which he and his wife decide out of fear to leave their County Cork home with their child, eight-year-old Lucy. Desperate not to leave, and not understanding why they must, Lucy hatches a plot to prevent the departure, but inadvertently leads her parents to believe that she is dead and consequently leave without her, cutting all ties in order to deal with their loss. The story then follows the life of Lucy, brought up by the servants left behind and tied to the house and to her guilt, longing for the return of her parents and redemption.

Trevor said that when he began this novel he thought it was fantastic. So much happens right at the beginning: the foiled raid on the house, Lucy's running away and the terrible mistaken conclusion of the parents. But as he went on reading he began to feel less sure: obviously the point was that nothing happened after that, that Lucy's ironic fate, after she had tried to take control, was to end up passive and basically to miss out on life, but he had the growing feeling that as a result there wasn't really enough in this book to justify its length and that it would have made a better short story. But then he really didn't know what to think, as all the review quotes on the back cover said how marvellous it was.

Doug said that he thought it was a wonderful story, but he hadn't at all liked the style of the book (and he too thought it might have better suited novella length). John asked him what he meant by the 'style' and Doug said he meant the prose style. I said that I too hadn't liked the prose style: to my shock I had found it over-abstract and formal, distancing and failing thus to make the characters live.

Clare quickly said, but isn't that the point, the characters don't live: all of them, and most especially Lucy, are condemned to a half-life? I agreed that that was true, but I still didn't think that the language worked well to to convey this psychological state. It reminded me of the prose of the Nadine Gordimer we had read, The Pickup, and similarly featured a frequent and clumsy use of the defocussing word 'what' in place of a specific noun: ...the men who had once come in the night would have by now lost interest in what they intended... ... they went to the creamery together for the first time since what had happened... ...his experience was puny compared with what still continued for the girl he believed he loved. Clare said, But the whole point is that characters in the book don't talk about things, they don't refer to things directly: the book is after all about silences and the consequences of silence. Fair enough in theory, I said, but I still thought that the prose was clumsy and distanced the reader from the characters' experience of alienation: what about the frequent use of the passive tense, eg when school had been finished with rather than 'when Lucy finished/left school' and He spoke of that afternoon and was listened to politely rather than 'Lucy listened to him politely'. Clare said, But this underlines the passivity of the characters. I said that there was other clumsiness, though, which seemed less like authorial strategy and more like mistakes: tautologies and lack of verbal economy, eg, Her fingers today were slow in what was required of them and ...this was an outcome that might yet come about.

Doug, Anne and John nodded agreement, but Jenny said that nevertheless she liked the book because it was a great story, and Clare said firmly that whatever we said she had found the book extremely moving and it had meant a great deal to her. I had to agree that in spite of my reservations about the prose it was a great story. John said that we couldn't ignore this, that people had thought it was a great story, and we needed to think about why this was so. I said that if someone told me the story over a cup of coffee in a cafe I would have thought it as good, so it was a separate thing from the execution in the novel, but Clare felt that it was the novel she was responding to. John asked her why she so engaged with it, and she said that it recalled for her her feelings of abandonment when she was sent away to boarding school. John wondered if she was though therefore bringing things to the novel rather than taking things from it, and Clare said, Maybe.

Ann, who also went to boarding school, seemed far less impressed by the novel. John now said that he wasn't actually as moved by the story as others of us: indeed, he found it pretty unbelievable. He didn' t find it believable that the parents could so easily disappear, and Ann agreed. She has recently been researching her own grandfather, an archeologist, for her PhD, and has found that at the time of the novel upper-class people like the Gaults moved from country to country via recommendation (rather than passports) which would leave a trail, not to mention the paper trail which would have been left by their cashing in of their shares - a point which had occurred to both John and me. (As a textile conservator at the Whitworth Gallery Ann is an expert needleworker, and she also said that the authority of the novel was spoilt for her by the author's mistakes about embroidery). Personally, in the light of cases like that of Madeleine McCann, I found psychologically unbelievable the Gaults' ability to accept so quickly the death of their child without the evidence of a body, but most of the group seemed to have no problem with this, unlike me finding the fishermen's explanation adequate to convince the parents.

John said that the thing he really disliked about the book was its colonialist tone. He thought that this was created by the aspects of the prose style I'd pointed out, and drew our attention to the omniscient opening:
Captain Everard Gault wounded the boy in the right shoulder on the night of June the twenty-first, nineteen twenty-one. Aiming above the trespassers' heads in the darkness, he fired the single shot from an upstairs window and then watched the three figures scuttling off, the wounded one assisted by his companions.
In fact, John said, this passage begs questions which we are clearly not expected to ask: Was Everard really aiming above the trespassers' heads? (The novel appears to expect us to accept this.) As an ex-army captain could he really have been that bad a shot? And, Trevor added, isn't it harder to misfire downwards if you're aiming upwards?

I said that, as for viewpoint, the whole novel takes the colonialist one. Jenny said she wasn't sure about this: what about the servants, Henry and Bridget, they were Catholics, and they were very sympathetic characters, and what about the fact that the boy who is wounded ends up being looked after in the mental asylum by Lucy? I said that last was quite right wing, the fact that narratorially he was dismissed into madness. Jenny said, How on earth is that right wing? and Ann said, Well, the boy's story could have been presented as a foil to that of the Gaults' but instead he was simply a pawn in the Gaults' story, which was the primary story, and indeed narratorially he is just in service to Lucy's own (do-gooding) redemption. And then people remembered how much better the Republican and Protestant viewpoints had been counterpointed in Jennifer Johnston's How Many Miles to Babylon? and how brilliant we had thought that book.

Everybody now agreed that none of the characters in this book ever really came to life, and that even as far as Lucy was concerned there were serious gaps where you might have expected emotional development - which, though it may have been the intention of the author, was unsatisfying for the reader. Several moments which were theoretically key to the story were glossed over emotionally, dismissed in a sentence or two, and Lucy's immediate reaction to her father's reappearance just about omitted altogether.

I said in mitigation that one thing that did really strike a chord with me was the fact that the story of Lucy Gault has to be simplified and indeed altered, its nuances lost, in order to achieve the legendary, folklore status it does amongst the local people. This is in fact an obsession of mine as a writer - the contingency of narrative - and it didn't seem to strike much of a chord with the rest of the group, who looked at me rather blankly. Someone, I think Jenny, said to much agreement that she had really liked the depiction of the way the neighbours, the O'Reillys, slowly encroached on the Gaults, taking back into Catholic ownership the colonized land, and someone else pointed out the similarity between this and the situation in Coetzee's Disgrace which we have also discussed. John said that it also echoed Chekov's Three Sisters, a production of which some of us had recently seen, in that the land had been gambled away at card games.

After which, the conversation about the book ended somewhat abruptly, and next thing we were planning our group Christmas dinner.

Our archived discussions can be found here, and a list of all the books we have discussed here.

1 comment:

lynnsayjane said...

Thank you for posting this. I have just finished The story of Lucy Gault and will be discussing it at Book Club this week. It was very interesting to hear the opinions from your group. I will pass on some points, no doubt we will also have varied reactions. I enjoyed the book and it has remained in my thoughts.