Off the Shelf: The Story of Lucy Gault

Off the Shelf: The Story of Lucy Gault
By William Trevor.  Viking Published by the Penguin ISBN 0-670-03154-2 2002 228 pp.
Review by Terrence J. Kenneally

Arguably one of the greatest writers in modern Irish history, and at the top of my list, Trevor (1928-2016) was best known as a contemporary writer of short stories in the English language, but he also wrote fifteen novels, including Fools of Fortune.

This month’s selection, The Story of Lucy Gault, was published more than twenty years ago, but it has contemporary relevance to the 100th anniversary of the Irish civil war, which is the setting of the novel. The novel explorers the decaying institution of the Protestant “Big House.”

Lucy’s story begins on June 21, 1921, during the period of post-treaty civil unrest that already sounded the death knell to the Protestant Ascendancy way of life. Captain Everhard Gault, Lucy’s father, fired a shot with his long gun at three trespassers on his property, known as Lahardane, striking one of them in the shoulder.

Gault’s “single shot” in the night is the logical conclusion of the long history of division between Big House residents, represented by Gault himself, and the Celtic Catholic population, represented by one of the men, Holahan, and his companions. The three men had come to Lahardane to burn it down.

After the shot in the night, Everhard and his wife decide to leave Lahardane, despite the family having lived for generations in Ireland and Lahardane. Gault tries to explain this to her:

“Why must we go? she cried

“Because they don’t want us here,” her papa said.

It seems as if Gault has oversimplified the situation to correspond to the level of a child, but in fact his six-word explanation is an effective condensation of eight hundred years of Irish history. The elder Gaults decide to remove Lucy from the only home she has ever known; so, she runs away, and is presumed dead. Her parents live in self-imposed exile from the scene of all this suffering. Heloise never sees her daughter again; Everhard suffers years of misery.

While the book could be classified as historical fiction, there are several moral events in the play-the shot in the night is literally triggered by a chain of events begun long before. Had England not established plantations in Ireland in the seventeenth century, taking away the land rightfully belonging to the native Celts, Holahen and his fellows would not be aggrieved nor Gault defensive.

A subtle a moving story of love, guilt and forgiveness, Trevor has written a novel which stands among the best literature in the English language and a Top Shelf selection this month.

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