Generally, genre thrillers are books without thrills. Someone gets killed. Turn the page and it happens again to someone else. There’s a chase, a near miss; da capo al fine; repeat. There are never consequences. Characters seem to exist – they never come to life – in an eternal present devoid of either thought or reflection. Plot is a series of events, while characters are mere fashionably dressed acts. William Trevor’s beautiful novel, Fools Of Fortune is, in many ways, a whodunit – or better who done what – thriller. But it transcends genre because it is the consequences of the actions and their motives that feature large, that provide plot and ultimately a credible, if tragic humanity.
Fools Of Fortune is a novel that presents tragedy not merely as a vehicle for portraying raw emotion, but rather as a means of illustrating the depth of ensuing consequence, both historical and personal. In conflict it is easy to list events, quote numbers, suggest outcome, but it is rare to have a feel of how momentous events can have life-long consequences for those involved, consequences that even protagonists cannot envisage, consequences that can affect the lives of those not even involved.
William Trevor’s book is set in Ireland. Its story spans decades, but the crucial elements of the plot are placed inn the second decade of the twentieth century. They do involve the First World War, but really as a sideshow to the issue of Home Rule for Ireland. The Quinton family are Protestants living in an old house called Kinleagh in County Cork. Willie Quinton is a child, initially home schooled by a priest called Kilgarriff, who has a highly personal view of the world. We see many of the events through Willie’s child eyes, including a surreptitious meeting between Willie’s father and a famous man who visits on a motorbike.
The family owns a flour mill. They are quite well off, a fact that is clearly appreciated by some and resented by others. Crucially, it is this availability of finance that leads to a downfall, events that lead to deaths, destruction and calls for revenge. Willie’s life is transformed for ever.
Over the water, the Woodcombes of Woodcombe Park, Dorset, have a daughter called Marianne. The Woodcombes and the Quintons are related. Marianne is Willie’s cousin.
On a visit to Kinleagh she falls in love with Willie. She is a small, delicate girl. She has experience of a Swiss finishing school, a stay that brings exposure to practices that are not wholly educational. Marianne returns to Kinleagh to find Willie. She has important news, but finds that devastation has hit the Quinton household, a culmination of events beyond the control of any individual. No-one wants to talk about what might have happened, and no-one admits to the whereabouts of Willie. Marianne stays to wait for his return. It proves to be a long wait.
There is vengeance in the air, and unforeseen consequences for a child who apparently played no part in any of the events. She was blameless, a mere recipient of the consequences of others’ actions, of others’ grief.
William Trevor tells the tale of Fools Of Fortune as serial memoirs of those involved, primarily Willie and Marianne. Some of the school experiences that form a significant part of the story are comic, and offer some relief to the pressure of unfolding tragedy. But central to the book’s non-linear discovery of motive and consequence is the fact that events can dictate the content of lives, and sometimes individuals appear as no more than powerless pawns in games dictated by others. We are all participants, but not always on our own terms.