May 23, 2008

Felicia's Journey

"Memory Lane" is a constant presence in this fine novel by William Trevor. Memory governs both of his characters- Felicia, a young pregnant Irish girl come to England to find her lover, and Mr Hilditch, a catering manager who she finds instead. Felicia of course is possessed by her memories as the story begins- she searches the streets of Birmingham for a face, for a whisper of news about her lover. Mr Hilditch though is also gripped by the memories of other girls in other places who he met and had tea with, counselled and eventually who parted from him. Felicia finds in Mr Hilditch a temporary resource, she does not care for him particularly and does not really think about him, the trajectory of her mind is set by her memories into a particular form and in her story, Mr Hilditch, is nothing more than an aberration on the way to find her Johnny. Whereas for Mr Hilditch she represents another itteration of a story that he retells himself again and again, about the girls he has met and about his time with them, and the times afterwards.

There is no getting away from it, this is a sinister novel, with the shade of Fred West for instance instantly present at every moment. But it is far more interesting than a mere thriller, though those aspects are there as well. It is about the way that we think about each other- and the way that our habits of explanation collide. Felicia unwittingly stimulates Mr Hilditch through her panic: when she runs down to find out how he is doing at finding Johnny in her nightgown, her urgency is interpreted by him as sexuality. There are plenty of other moments in the story where a character's actions are misunderstood- particularly there is the obtuse missionary who meets both Felicia and Hilditch and fails to comprehend either of them, then there is Felicia's family whose instant condemnation fails to appreciate Felicia's guilt and lastly there is Felicia herself who assumes that such condemnation is perpetual and therefore runs away. Most notable and tragic is Mr Hilditch, almost everything he thinks about other characters, almost every way he classifies people is an error and a mistake. It drives him onwards towards an unpleasant ending.

The novel does not offer any satisfying resolution to these issues- what I found interesting was that in the end the resolution is almost an abandonment of hope. Trevor's characters can only find peace by neglecting to remember, by forgetting the ability to write stories but just observing life as seamless and meaningless incident they find a kind of truth. By dying, they live. In a sense that Christian motif runs right through the novel- from the first hints of an Irish mass, to the last calls of an Evangelical old woman- but in a deeper sense this is a novel whose roots are incredibly Christian. What could be more theologically apt than the power of a pregnant woman, carrying a child into a strange country, what could be more theologically accurate than the conception of the anger of conscience, the torture of wronging an innocent destroying the lives of the guilty? Trevor's portrait of individual Christians is very bleak- but his conception of the world rests upon a Christian moral sensibility- and in particular an Irish Catholic sensibility.

If this has one last meaning, it is to do with the position of Ireland and England in their never ending dance (which hopefully is entering a newer and brighter phase). Written in the early 1990s though, this book reflects that world in which the IRA ceasefire was but a myth and the Celtic tiger had only begun to roar. Felicia's lover, Johnny, is feared by her father because of his possible links to the British Army. In a deeper sense his fear of his daughter's violation by this representative of Britain is an emblem of the crossing of the two societies. Felicia's remembered Ireland is the land of conservatism and rural community, Britain in contrast is scary, urban and liberal. In Ireland, a man may easily be beaten up, his face kicked to ribbons and left to die without a word passing, in Britain Mr Hilditch with all his problems fades into the anonymity of modern life. These portraits are not nice- but Trevor balances throughout the novel between the two and between the two narrators- inevitably what he portrays is the journey of Felicia psychologically from Ireland to Britain, a journey which only begins when she arrives in the UK. And lastly a journey which is deeply ironic, for everyone she meets in Britain is attempting to help her not become the person, that she eventually, under their pressure becomes. Felicia is naive: but so are the small c conservatives she meets- for they think that it is possible to be Irish in Britain. As the story proves it isn't.

There are lots of journeys in Felicia's journey, but the essential ones are internal journeys. Styllistically Trevor manages to convey this through a peculiar narrative style- most of the book comes in third person narration, from the position of one of the two main characters' minds. The key though is that the internal journey is the real event described in the title- I hope I haven't given away its ending but suffice it to say that the journey winds and twists and its ending is not what you might expect.