Fiction – paperback; Picador; 310 pages; 1999.
Niall Williams is a master at writing heart-wrenching, quietly beautiful novels about love — and usually loss — set in modern day rural Ireland. So I was eagerly looking forward to immersing myself in another of his timeless, lyrical tales. But, sadly, As it is in Heaven, his second novel after his oh-so wonderful Four Letters of Love, did not live up to expectation.
The story makes a promising enough start — an emotionally starved young teacher, Steven Griffin, falls in love with a violinist, the passionate and beautiful Gabriella from Venice, who is touring the west of Ireland with an orchestra. But she is not aware of his existence and so the relationship is conducted largely in his head until, one fateful day, he works up enough courage to speak to her.
The pair then conduct a rather steamy love affair, but Gabriella, who is nursing wounds from a failed relationship, is not quite sure of her feelings for Stephen and unexpectedly returns to her homeland, leaving him in the lurch.
To say anything more would ruin the plot, but it’s no spoiler to say that the course of true love experiences a few bumpy moments along the way…
Why didn’t I like this novel as much as his others? Two words: predictable and sentimental. Which is a shame, because there’s a lovely story here, it just gets clouded by emotional manipulation, as Williams pulls endless literary stunts to build up the reader’s tear ducts! I’m afraid I’m too savvy to let that kind of narrative engineering wreak any affect, instead I found most of it tiresome and “cheap”, and I couldn’t wait to get to the end of the book just so I could be rid of it!
Still, there’s no denying Williams has a way with words and he’s very good at scene-setting and getting inside the character’s head. And of course any book that is set in Ireland and Venice, two of my very favourite places in the world, wins kudos from me. I just wish As it is in Heaven wasn’t quite as staged or as sappy, because I’m sure I would have loved it otherwise, which is not to say that you won’t if you decide to give it a try.