Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 14, 2023

Fools of Fortune (1983), by William Trevor

Chosen as a contribution to Cathy’s Reading Ireland at 746 Books and A Year with William Trevor hosted by Kim at Reading Matters, Fools of Fortune is also a title listed in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. It’s included — along with two others by Trevor, Felicia’s Journey (1994) and The Story of Lucy Gault (2002) — as a poignant novel [that[ explores the legacy of Ireland’s decolonisation, tracing the aftermath from the time of the Black and Tans through to the 1980s.

Fools of Fortune poses a world of love and devotion against their destructive opposites.  […] Trevor’s view combines both Yeats’ intense vision of tragic cycles with a more benevolent Chekhovian sense of a rural world in which a futile human tragicomedy is played out.  […] Trevor is a writer of wonderful economy and precise observation, whose focus is distinctly on the intimacy of his characters’ relations and the local world they inhabit. (1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, 2006 Edition, ABC Books, p.713)

I’ve read a fair few of Trevor’s books, some reviewed here on the blog but many more from my Blytonesque binge when I discovered his work in 2004. What I’ve come to expect from Trevor is that he writes gently about devastating events, and he does so in his mid-career novel Fools of Fortune too.

His central character is William Quinton, just a boy when the Black and Tans kill his father and torch his ancestral home Kilneagh, killing his sisters in the fire as well. The Quintons are an Anglo-Irish family (what my mother used to call ‘English people living in Ireland’) but they have nationalist sympathies. They support Home Rule, and they host visits from Irish heroes such as Michael Collins.  And though they had nothing to do with the murder of a returned WW1 soldier thought to be a spy for Britain, the Black and Tans’ retaliation blights Willie’s entire life.

In the hands of a lesser storyteller, this could have been a dreary tale.  Instead, the narration by Willie in the first part of the novel brings us his memories of boyhood at Kilneagh where his father is a mill-owner and his future seems assured. There are droll stories of Willie’s time at boarding school with a wonderful cast of characters including eccentric masters and irrepressible boys with mastery of the untruths that they tell to evade punishment for various misdeeds.  One of these misdeeds, however, involves a former master falsely accused of wrongdoing, a drunk, who avenges himself with a pathetic insult, unseen except by the trio of mischief makers, Willie, Ring and de Courcy.  In the aftermath, however, the drunk gets his revenge because his accuser is traumatised by the mockery of schoolboys.  But the drunk never knows it because he’s drifted away.  This incident is emblematic of the bigger theme: that the aftermath of trauma persists long after the event.

Along with his exploration of revenge as part of a cycle of violence, Trevor also illuminates the issue of blame based on accusations that may or may not be false.  ‘Father’ Kilgarriff was defrocked (he says) by a false accusation. Doyle whose terrible death is the catalyst for the Black and Tans’ revenge, dies on the strength of accusation not proof and the atrocity at Kilneagh occurs only because of suspicion.  The master whose career was destroyed says he was innocent of the accusations against him.  In a small world where gossip is a real thing, it can destroy lives.  Marianne whose chronicle of doomed love forms the second part of the story, makes life-changing decisions because she knows her parents cannot withstand gossip. And though Marianne tries to shield Imelda from the destructive past, the child’s curiosity and eavesdropping works its evil anyway.

Violence destroys lives long after the event.  Though she takes to alcohol as a salve, Willie’s mother Ann cannot resolve her grief, adding to his losses.  The extended family, estranged by the depth of a grief they do not understand, suffers too.  And eventually, through Marianne’s narrative, it becomes clear that Willie will have his revenge, at a terrible cost extending into the next generation.

Trevor (who lived in England for most of his life) wrote this novel long after the transitional period of Irish independence but during the decade-long IRA bombing campaign (1971-1983). Fools of Fortune suggests that the cycle of violence has to end somehow but in Ireland it happens sometimes that the insane are taken to be saints of a kind. 

Imelda reads her mother’s diary, where she addresses Willie:

I had never heard of the Battle of the Yellow Ford until Father Kilgarriff told me. And now he wishes he hadn’t. The furious Elizabeth cleverly transformed the defeat of Sir Harry Bagenal into Victory, ensuring that her Irish battlefield might continue for as long as it was profitable … Just another Irish story it had seemed to you …… But the battlefield continuing is part of the pattern I see everywhere around me, as your exile is also. How could we have rebuilt Kilneagh and watched our children playing among the shadows of destruction? The battlefield has never quietened. (p.189)

Back when that IRA bombing campaign was at its height, I remember my mother telling me that ‘every family in Ireland has a Black and Tans story’ but that passing these on to the next generation only perpetuated hatreds.  I am not sure that she was right about that because truth telling does not necessarily do so.  Though there is a risk that it can make things worse, clearing the air and facing up to the wrongs of the past can lead to healing.

William Trevor  (1928 – 2016), was an Irish novelist, playwright, and short story writer. Fools of Fortune won the Whitbread best novel award in 1983.

Author: William Trevor
Title: Fools of Fortune
Publisher: Penguin, 2015, first published 1983
ISBN: 9780241969496, pbk., 215 pages
Source: Personal library



  1. Thanks so much for taking part Lisa, I’m looking forward to reading this one for sure!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. […] Fools of Fortune by William Trevor – Lisa at ANZ Lit Lovers […]


  3. I’ve got this one scheduled to read in August and am really looking forward to it. It sounds like this mid-career novel is quite different to the earlier ones I am making my way through now (which are essentially black comedies set in London and all great fun).


    • It’s such a good thing to do, to work through an author’s oeuvre from start to finish.


      • It’s certainly allowed me to see the patterns in his work in terms of characterisation, structure and themes.

        Liked by 1 person

      • BTW, I started a round-up of reviews on my A Year With William Trevor page (now that I sorted out the comments on that page) and have added this to it!


        • Thanks, Kim.
          I’m looking forward to seeing other reviews of it in due course.

          Liked by 1 person

  4. […] Fools of Fortune by William Trevor – Lisa at ANZ Lit Lovers […]


  5. I’ve only read one of Trevor’s novels, not sure why, he writes longer form just as well as he does short stories. And this sounds interesting – I know almost nothing about the Black and Tans.


    • Oh, they are infamous in Ireland.
      I wonder if anybody’s ever been brave enough to write a novel from their PoV. I mean, there must have been some who were not totally evil.


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