I’ll let you into a secret: when I was a teenager I accepted a lift from a stranger. I was travelling alone to visit my big sis’, a trip I’d made several times before with my mum but I had my nose in a book instead of my eyes on the road and contrived to get off the bus one stop too soon. Disorientated and trying to figure out where I was, a car pulled over and the man driving wound down the window. He said I looked lost, asked where my sister lived, said he knew the road and told me to hop in. So I did.
The clunk of the passenger door closing brought me to my senses, too late, of course. I felt sick. I felt stupid. I wondered how long it would be before my sister rang my mum to say I hadn’t turned up. I tried not to think of how upset my mum would be. I prayed to God to keep me safe, or if not safe, insensible to pain.
The man turned right at a pub I seemed to recognise then indicated to turn into a road I knew was my sister’s. I asked him to pull over at the top; I didn’t want my sister to see me get out of the car. I had my hand on the door release before he’d properly stopped. The relief, the release, the rush of my feet on the pavement! I might have said thank you (to the man, to God) but I can’t remember.
I mention it because without that experience I would have wondered what on earth possessed seventeen year old Felicia, newly arrived from Ireland, to get into Mr Hilditch’s car.
Felicia is particularly vulnerable, having done a flit to England with her great-Grandmother’s money to try to track down the boy, Johnny Lysaght, by whom she’s pregnant. And Mr Hilditch, 54, is particularly practised at picking up young girls; there have been “others”: Beth, Elsie, Sharon, Gaye, Jakki, Bobbi.
Felicia’s Journey, winner of the Whitbread (now Costa) Book of the Year in 1994 is little over 200 pages long: short enough to read in one sitting and subtle enough to make you want to. Mr Hilditch is neither your run of the mill sex pest nor your standard pantomime villain; in fact he’s chillingly ordinary, “a catering manager from a factory, well liked and without enemies.” Or, as Felicia thinks of it, his “soul” is “like any other soul” except it’s “lost”: “purity itself it surely once had been.” Felicia, too, is lost, to her family, to her purpose. Both reject Miss Calligary’s attempts to “gather” them into her Christian community.
There but for the grace of God go I, my mum was fond of saying. But for the grace of God (whatever God means) I could have been a Felicia…or, for that matter, a Hilditch – because as Felicia, wandering and alone, comes to understand “goodness is a greater mystery than…evil.”
This review has been a long time coming because I’ve been taking time to work out how I feel about this book. I’m still not sure I have. For its small size it certainly packs a big punch, touching on issues as diverse as teenage pregnancy, abortion, desertion, the Troubles in Ireland, murder, suicide, vagrancy, and incest.
If that makes it sound overly depressing, it isn’t. Unsettling, yes; thought provoking, yes; but hopeful too. After all Felicia is “content”; “grateful,” even. And at the last there’s the simple pleasure to be had from feeling the warmth of the sun. Perhaps that should always be satisfaction enough for anyone.
** Worth reading