It is rare to read a novel where not a single word seems out of place. William Trevor's new novel is such a book. Now 74, he started life as a wood sculptor, and the trademark of his fiction is that every sentence is pared to a polished minimum, compacted for maximum impact. He has won the Whitbread Book of the Year Award, as well as almost every other literary prize with the glaring exception of the Booker.
The Story of Lucy Gault is as balanced and flawless as Trollope's The Warden, and should put that omission right. It is both seriously exciting and excitingly serious, guaranteed to keep you reading - all through the night, if necessary - to find out what happens when a little girl mysteriously disappears from her home in Ireland, triggering a sequence of unforeseen catastrophes as her parents turn into "invalids of despair" because they assume that she is dead.
The novel opens in 1921 in rural Cork with Captain Everard Gault firing a rifle in warning over the heads of three IRA terrorists when they attempt to burn down Lahardane, his beautiful, grey-stone Georgian house. Gault unintentionally wounds one of the Catholic youths who had come with cans of petrol to destroy his grand country house, an obvious and easy target for IRA violence. He is appalled to have hit one of the arsonists in the shoulder, and afterwards tries to make amends to him and his family. But words of contrition and reconciliation are ignored, as is so often the case in Irish politics. They simply will not countenance an apology; it is not in their vocabulary. Gault fears further reprisals, as this is not the first attack that he has foiled and Ireland is in its usual state of complex and violent turmoil. Fear for the safety of his English wife, Heloise, and daughter Lucy, aged eight, makes him decide to quit Ireland. But Lucy does not wish to leave and she simply disappears. An agonising search fails to find her, and her parents assume she has been swept out to sea. What actually happens to her is the pivotal surprise of the book, and its cruellest irony. The consequences of Captain Gault's one gunshot wound on a warm June night blight the lives of everyone connected to him. This is a story of distress and damage, but primarily of disappointment, a topic rarely engaged with by novelists. It has the feel of a Hardyesque tragedy: we are pulled towards a disaster that seems unpreventable.
This is, I think, Trevor's best novel. His eye is so sharp and observant, turning the commonplace and familiar into something new and shocking. It has the force and immediacy of his short stories: it is widely acknowledged that he is the greatest contemporary master of the form. The novel telescopes an 80-year time-span with authority and ease. Three separate storylines are tied together: the story of Lucy's life, worn into a loveless and impoverished tragedy; the wounded, pathetic terrorist's descent into self-loathing and madness; and Lucy's parents' stoical endurance of her disappearance.
Trevor's surprise twist makes this elegiac story of Irish village life shockingly distressing. He explores the darkest side of human behaviour and at the same time takes a warm and benevolent view of mankind. He is a strong moralist, but always shows the other side of those who do wicked things. The terrorist is as much a victim as he is the proponent of sectarian violence.
Trevor's writing always achieves monumental effects, emotionally, intellectually and psychologically, by observing the simple details of our lives with unremitting focus. Wisdom and intelligence illuminate this story against its subtly etched backdrop of troubled history and politics in Ireland, a country where the past always seems to poison the present.
Geordie Greig is the editor of Tatler