BOOK REVIEW / Suburban low life cannot get much lower: 'Felicia's Journey' - William Trevor: Viking, 15 pounds

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The Independent Online
APLAINTIVE prose grandmaster, William Trevor has, in his long and admirable writing career, examined the private hells that eventually scorch and blister the surface of apparently ordinary lives.

This new novel runs together two distinct tranches of Trevor country - English parochial pettiness and rural Ireland - and uncovers in the collision a world pungent with the stink of depravity. It is as harrowingly grim as anything fictional you'll read this year.

Felicia, the novel's hapless heroine, is a sweet, sad waif who has abandoned her cloistered Catholic hometown and crossed the sea to England in search of Johnny, the young man whose baby she is carrying. All she has to cling to, aside from her two plastic carrier bags, is a rumour that he is working in a lawnmower factory near Birmingham.

Trevor sketches with wondrous economy the pinched circumstances of the life Felicia has left behind and the community that both supports and stifles her.

But if Ireland was drab, at least it was a world that was familiar. Trevor unfolds with sombre exactitude the kind of England Felicia has unwittingly ventured into: 'There are no hills. Against a grey sky, tall bleak chimneys belch out their own hot clouds. Factories seem like fortresses, their towers protecting an ancient realm of iron and wealth. Terracotta everywhere has blackened to the insistent local sheen.' What is more, the rumoured factory is a mirage, and - though she won't believe it - Johnny is really a soldier in the British Army. Somehow, the reader knows that it all bodes ill for the poor girl, but nothing quite prepares us for the suburban nightmare Trevor has in store. Enter the tubby catering manager Mr Hilditch, a self-styled angel of mercy to rootless young women, dispensing Bovril and Ovaltine as smoothly as he covers any traces of his acquaintance with them.

Hilditch is the novel's heart of darkness, though it is a mark of Trevor's great imaginative resource that he opens deep chambers of horror without ever describing an act of violence. Instead he focuses upon the detail of the man's dreary diurnal routine, the Daily Telegraph, the old 78s on the turntable, the camaraderie of the factory canteen, and the endless inventories of junk food (rissoles in batter, anyone?). This is interrupted every so often by stray memories of a girl - Elsie or Beth, Sharon or Jakki or Bobbi - the 'debris of recall' which, combined with the creepy suburban torpor, fuel our worst fears. Sinister hints become terrifying certainties. Whether Felicia realises the true nature of her saviour in time is a question the novel answers only at the end.

What Trevor leaves in no doubt is the fate awaiting those unlucky enough to toil across our not so green and pleasant land without a safety net. Lowlife doesn't get much lower than it does for Felicia, doomed, it seems, to live - or rather linger - in a grimy underworld of derelicts and drunks, addicts and religious nutters. Even more heart- rending is her meek acquiescence in this unlovely fate - she doesn't demand or expect any better.

Yet there is a suggestion here, as elsewhere in Trevor's work, of a responsibility and compassion that will be exercised by a few graced individuals, those people who brave all weathers to hand out soup, say, or the unnamed woman dentist who has 'dedicated her existence to the rotten teeth of derelicts . . . Her goodness is a greater mystery than the evil that distorted a man's every spoken word, his every movement made'. Acts of kindness make a difference: sometimes it takes a novelist of William Trevor's assurance to remind us why.