William Trevor (1928-2016) was one the greatest literary treasures the English-speaking world ever produced. He won or was nominated for just about everything an Irish/English writer can be, and he deserved more. I will probably not live long enough to see his like again.
Revered primarily as a prolific short story writer (I read once that the New Yorker magazine had a standing contract with him to buy anything he wrote, sight unseen) he also wrote fifteen or twenty novels, depending on how you count them, and depending too if you count novellas as short novels or long short stories.
One novel, which I first read many years ago, and now again, but not for the last time, is Fools of Fortune. The title may come from Romeo’s despairing cry after he revenges his friend Mercutio’s death by killing Tybalt, the King of Cats: “O I am Fortune’s fool!” And that should tell you much about what to expect from this unforgettable novel.
For reasons that mystify me—I was reading other things and involved in other projects—I recently found myself going back over and over to the bookshelf where it sat, until finally I picked it up and read once again the first, very short chapter and was, once again, hooked.
Many fine and gifted teachers of creative writing will tell you that it is always important to have a first line that will hook the reader:
“It was to have been a quiet evening at home;”
“Last night I dreamed I returned to Mandalay;”
“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice;”
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times;”
“He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.”
You get the picture. But a certain class of reader, the kind seriously interested in great writing, will usually take the time to at least wade through the first several pages, or more, if the writing is good enough. William Trevor’s first introductory short chapter appears initially to be very low-key and subdued, almost mundane, but the magic of how he puts his sentences together will make you read through to the end, perhaps five- or six-hundred words, total, and then you will come away with a wonderful, haunting desire to know what and why and who. And that quality of haunting will stay with you through the whole novel. You won’t find out the what and why and who quickly, but as the story gradually unfolds in alternating points of view, with glimpses, hints, oblique suggestions, you’ll find yourself hooked, horrified, and above all haunted. You will find yourself unable to forget the characters you have come to know.
Like all great novels, it works on many levels: it is a love story; a dark glimpse into a dark period in Ireland’s long and bloody struggle for independence; a story of murder and revenge and the appalling, lasting results of both of those; a mystery; even perhaps a parable. (Euripides: “The Gods visit the sins of the fathers upon the children.” Horace: “For the sins of your fathers you, though guiltless, must suffer.” Shakespeare: “The sins of the fathers are to be laid upon the children.” And, of course, there is something in Exodus.) But above all it is incomparably evocative, with even the most briefly limned characters resonating unforgettably, drawing the reader into a doomed and tragic past with a final, brief adumbration of what might have been: “Fingers touch. One hand grasps another, awkwardly in elderliness.”
Oh yes, above all a love story.