A Suspenseful Tale Of an Irish Girl's Quest

The characters and plot line of ``Felicia's Journey,'' William Trevor's 13th novel, seem at once familiar and strange. Felicia is an awkward Irish girl, whose inexperience and low self-esteem make her easy prey to a handsome charmer. Johnny Lysaght convinces her he loves her but manages not to give her his address when he goes back to England.

Finding herself pregnant - to the horror of her family - Felicia goes to England to find Johnny, although she has little information as to his whereabouts. All she has is the name of a Midlands town where he told her he had a job in a lawn-mower factory.

In this town lives a fat, seemingly jovial, nicely dressed, middle-aged man who is respected by the people with whom he works. Joseph Ambrose Hilditch lives alone. No one suspects he has a secret life which involves ``befriending'' lost young women. When Hilditch sees Felicia, something tells him she is to be his next special ``friend.''

Alone, confused, and short of funds in a strange city, Felicia is vulnerable. And Hilditch is kind and helpful, driving her from one place to another in a fruitless search for the nonexistent lawn-mower factory while listening patiently to her story. Only gradually does it become clear what Hilditch wants from his ``girlfriends'' and what has become of the five young women - Felicia's predecessors - who live on in Hilditch's ``Memory Lane.''

``Felicia's Journey'' could be called a novel of suspense, although it is more than that. Trevor, an accomplished writer, clearly understands that the secret of suspense lies in what is not said. Although the threat of violence is everywhere, scenes of violence are virtually nonexistent. And as the story unfolds, Trevor also manages to evoke a powerful sense of the larger world or worlds - repressive rural Ireland, the amorphous English Midlands conurbation - that shape the lives of his characters.

We learn a great deal about the backgrounds of Felicia and Hilditch: his carefully planned bachelor's existence living in a large house he has furnished with Victorian antiques and paintings of other people's ancestors; her drab life in Ireland keeping house for her father, brothers, and bedridden great-grandmother.

The story is told from the alternating viewpoints of Felicia and Hilditch. It's not as if we were seeing through their eyes because both stories are narrated in the third person. It's as if we were watching these characters from a position just above or behind them, overhearing their thoughts, but also able to see them as they do not see themselves.

Minor characters are finely etched as well: homeless people Felicia meets, the family she's left behind, and the eccentric members of a religious commune who invite her to join them. What nearly all of these dissimilar characters have in common is their inability or failure to communicate.

From kindly Miss Calligary, intent on ``gathering'' souls, to Felicia, blindly searching for her boyfriend, almost everyone seems as lonely and compulsive as Hilditch. But their obsessions, unlike his, are not malignant.

Some masters of suspense, like Alfred Hitchcock, might have played up the harmless foibles of ordinary lives as a contrast to the horror of criminal abnormality.

Trevor achieves something more ambiguous in his juxtaposition of the criminal and his context. This is not a moral ambiguity in which victim and criminal are equally blameless or guilty. It is, rather, an ambivalence about what is safe, dangerous, prudent, and foolish. No character has a clear idea of where his or her compulsions are leading, and the suspense lies in finding out if they will save themselves from their own blindness and from one another.

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