Book Review: Fools of Fortune

 Fools of Fortune
William Trevor 
Penguin Classics, 2006 224 pages
William Trevor is a joy. If you’re not familiar with his work, you have a treat in store. Best known for his short stories, he’s also the author of a goodly number of novels, many of which have won awards and some of which have been turned into movies.
Born Trevor Cox in Co. Cork in 1928, his reputation has grown quietly over the years and he is now thought of as the grand old man of Irish letters and heir to Joyce’s mantle of the great Irish short story writer.
His work is often melancholic, dealing with sadness, guilt, loss of innocence and a kind of accepted defeat. I’ve had a copy of The Story of Lucy Gault on my bookshelf for a long time and haven’t (yet) had the courage to read it. I’ve been warned that it’s inexpressibly sad. And yet the work that I have read I’ve also found uplifting and enriching.
Fools of Fortune is the story of Willie Quinton and Marianne, his English cousin. Set initially in the War of Independence c.1920, the basis of the story is the destruction of the estate of Kilneagh by the Black and Tans and the murder of Willie’s father and two sisters. The Quintons were a Protestant family, mill owners and previously large landowners. Much of their land had been sold during the Famine and the money spent on hunger relief. Because of their religion and social background they are members of a class apart but they are well regarded by the people around them. William Quinton (Willie’s father) even has dealings with Michael Collins, the IRA leader and though he supports the Independence movement with money, he doesn’t permit drilling and training on his property. Then an police informer is found ritually murdered on the property and the Black and Tans stage a deadly retaliatory raid in the night, killing many of the family and some workers and burning most of the house to the ground. Willie and his mother move into a house in Cork City where Willie attends school and his mother quietly drinks herself into oblivion. When his mother commits suicide, Willie is driven to a terrible act of revenge, one that exiles him from happiness and love. And, as is the case in much of Trevor’s writing there is much unsaid and much unresolved. The story does come together at the end but in an almost perfunctory way and after a very long time for affairs to resolve. I needed to re-read the ending at the time. I was afraid I’d been subjected to an ‘Atonement’ ending.
The story, in many ways, could be thought of as an extended metaphor for the Anglo-Irish relationship over the centuries and especially during the first half of the Twentieth Century. People become trapped in their roles and their history comes their destiny; the “nightmare’ that Joyce’s Stephen was trying to escape. They become “fools of Fortune.”
In the end, though, the book is about feelings and the inner lives of the people involved. Trevor has a most assured hand and the writing is superb. There is nothing extraneous and the habits of a skilled short-story writer serve the story well.

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