Author, Bloomsbury, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Niall Williams, Publisher, Setting

‘History of the Rain’ by Niall Williams


Fiction – hardcover; Bloomsbury; 368 pages; 2014. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

I first discovered Irish author Niall Williams when I read his extraordinarily moving debut novel, Four Letters of Love, when it was released in paperback long before I started this blog. Today, it remains in my affections as one of the best novels I have ever read.

Since then I’ve read a handful of his other books — As it is in Heaven (1999), The Fall of Light (2001) and Only Say the Word (2004) — so I was very much looking forward to his new one, History of the Rain, which hit the bookshops last week.

I wasn’t disappointed. While it’s quite unlike any of Williams’ previous work — in both theme and style — it is a lovely, literary-inspired read that explores the importance of stories and story telling to our sense of self and our family histories. It will especially appeal to booklovers and anyone who just loves a good yarn, for indeed, that’s what this is: a good yarn — and a gripping, often witty, one at that.

A remarkable voice

History of the Rain has a truly distinctive and original voice in 19-year-old first-person narrator “Plain” Ruth Swain, who is bed-bound in her attic bedroom because of an unexplained illness that has cut short her university career. She spends all her time reading the 3,958 books that once belonged to her late father because, in doing so, “that is where I will find him”.

In what Ruth fittingly dubs a “river narrative”, the story meanders all over the place, but its purpose is clear: to bring her father, a failed farmer and struggling poet, back to life. As part of her “research”, Ruth must also unearth the stories of her father’s paternal, and essentially English, lineage: her great grandfather Reverend Swain, who had impossible standards no one could live up to, and his son Abraham, who fought in France while his contemporaries were at home fighting in the Civil War.

Somewhere in this heady mix of family history she also tells the story of her twin brother, Aeney, her father’s adored “golden child”, who tragically dies before his time, leaving everyone heartbroken.

What emerges is a rather eccentric tale about rather eccentric (but good-hearted) people — and it’s all told in Ruth’s old-before-her-years but sharply funny voice as she explores the myths that have shrouded her family for three generations.

A love of books

For anyone who loves books (let’s face it, if you’re reading this blog that will be you), it’s a complete joy from beginning to end, because the entire text is littered with literary references — there’s Dickens (“the greatest novelist that ever was or will be”), Jane Austen, Patrick Kavanagh, Robert Louis Stevenson (“I like writers who were sick”) and so on — which Ruth uses as a form of commentary, in parenthesis, on her own life and her beloved father’s life. Here’s an example:

This, Dear Reader, is a river narrative. My chosen style is The Meander. I know that in The Brothers Karamazov (Book 1,777, Penguin Classics, London) Ippolit Kirillovich chose the historical form of narration because Dostoevsky says it checked his own exuberant rhetoric. Beginnings, middles and ends force you into that place where you have to Stick to the Story as Maeve Mulvey said the night the Junior Certs were supposed to be going to the cinema in Ennis but were buying cans in Dunnes and drinking them in the Parnell Street carpark and Mrs Pender saw Grainne Hayes hanging off the salt-and-vinegar lips of some pimpled beanpole at The Height, wearing enough eyeliner and mascara to maker her look like a badger in Disney and that micro-mini that wasn’t more than two inches of black-plastic silage wrap, all of which required they chose the historical form of narration and Stick To Their Story since she’d left Hayes’s house earlier that evening in jeans and hoodie.

The story is heartbreaking in places, underpinned by a sense of hopelessness as Ruth’s father tries to farm “fourteen acres of the worst farming land in Ireland” without realising he’s doing it all wrong — regardless of how much it rains. But at the heart of the novel there beats a fierce optimism and a love of nature — especially leaping salmon — that imbues the story with a rosy, hopeful, aren’t-we-lucky-to-be-alive type of glow.

History of the Rain is, by turns, witty, charming and moving. It has the feel of an old-fashioned tale told well, the kind of book you can curl up with and get lost in for hours at a time, one that transports you to another time and place and does it effortlessly.

Williams’ tone of voice is pitch-perfect, but it’s the characters — so real, human and riddled with foibles — that makes the story really come alive. I loved being in their company.

Author, Book review, Fiction, historical fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Niall Williams, Picador, Publisher, Setting

‘The Fall of Light’ by Niall Williams


Fiction – paperback; Picador; 382 pages; 2001.

The Fall of Light is Niall Williams‘ third novel — he has seven to his name. Of the ones I’ve read, I’ve come to appreciate his elegiac prose style and much enjoy his themes of love and loss, all set in Ireland.

I had high expectations for this novel, which was published following a wave of critical acclaim and commercial success for Willams’ two previous efforts. But I finished it feeling nothing but relief. Indeed, I was surprisingly unmoved by its contents. (One critic, from the international Catholic newspaper The Tablet, was perhaps more circumspect than me, writing “Williams is not interested in character-driven plot. His people are driven by something else entirely, a sort of cosmic passion, a oneness with the universe, the meaning of which they find in the stars…”)

The story is set in 19th century Ireland. The blurb on my edition is misleading, because it claims the story begins during the famine. It doesn’t. The famine occurs a good way into the story and even then you’d be hard pressed to say this is a book about the Irish famine. The horror of it is there, but only in the background, and even though several characters sail to America on what must have been “famine ships”, it is not starvation that drives them to leave their homeland. It is love. Or a sense of adventure. Or as a way of escaping heartache.

There’s a lot of that in this novel — love, adventure and heartache — and if I was to come up with a one-line description I’d say it’s a kind of road story about a family, scattered across the world, which struggles to be reunited once again. All kinds of disasters and tragedies befall the Foleys — Francis and his wife Emer, and their four sons, Tomas, Finbar, Finan and Tiege — which makes this struggle all the more difficult. But there are also moments of unimagined good luck, quiet successes and amazing co-incidences, which injects the story with a sense of optimism.

When The Fall of Light opens Emer has fled the family home after a row with Francis. Francis responds impulsively by setting out to find the rugged West coast, his four children in tow. He burns the house down before leaving. But then tragedy strikes when one of the party is swept downstream while crossing a swollen river.

This sets the pattern for the remaining 300 or so pages, because an awful lot of things — good and bad — happen to these characters, and you’re never sure what’s going to befall them next. But strangely the story lacks tension and momentum, perhaps because it is told from too many divergent points of view and reads as a series of anecdotes rather than one streamlined narrative. Even when there are hints of drama — such as Tiege stealing into the room of his upper-class beloved to watch her sleeping without her knowing — it fizzles out almost as soon as it begins.

Perhaps Williams is trying to convey too much here. The story is, essentially, a family history, told by an omnipresent narrator — a descendant of the Foleys — who occasionally buts in, reminding you that the story is a distant one, not an immediate one:

The story leaves him and returns to the island. Always the story returns there. The teller changes the lens and the green slope of the island appears in focus. And it is as if the teller understands that the island is an image for all Foleys thereafter, after there was something passionate and impetuous in the character of the family that made each of its men islands in turn, and that this was a trait deeply fated and irreversible.

That said, The Fall of Light is filled with gorgeous language and lovely turns of phrase, the type of writing that is best appreciated slowly. But the lack of narrative drive makes the story gentle and meandering, which is wonderful if you like that sort of thing, and tedious if you don’t.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Niall Williams, Picador, Publisher, Setting

‘As it is in Heaven’ by Niall Williams


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.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Niall Williams, Publisher, QPD, Setting

‘Only Say The Word’ by Niall Williams


Fiction – paperback; QPD edition; 264 pages; 2004.

A love of books and the joy of reading figure prominently in this beguiling novel by Irish writer Niall Williams.

It begins with a forty-something man writing a love letter to his deceased wife. He lives in County Clare with his two grieving children — teenager Hannah and eight-year-old Jack — and feels so disconnected from them and his own life, that the only way to make sense of what has happened is to pen his autobiography. And so, through two intertwined narratives — one set in the past, one set in the present — we get to discover Jim Foley’s life, his loves, his secrets.

Swinging backwards and forwards in time, the story is underpinned by a constant theme: the importance of books to one’s emotional and mental sustenance. For that reason anyone who loves reading — especially classics like Dickens — will enjoy Only Say The Word.

But there is much more to this book than one man’s love of literature. In Williams’ characteristic graceful prose we get glimpses of much pain and sorrow. When Foley is orphaned as a young adult and abandoned by his older brother,  he flees to America where he meets his wife-to-be, Kate. Socially inept and emotionally crippled, he struggles to make a living and eventually returns to his childhood home with Kate in tow. It is only here, with the rituals of rural living to fall back on, that he is able to confront the ghosts of his past and move on.

Only Say The Word is an emotional book and Williams is a clever, well-seasoned navigator of the heart,  treading a very fine line between schmaltz and romance. He is also an accomplished chronicler of Irish rural life and seems, in this reader’s humble opinion, the natural successor to the late John McGahern, although I feel his prose would benefit from some restraint in places. Occasionally I felt myself being manipulated — the scene at the beach towards the end is a case in point — but I will forgive the author this one little quibble.

All in all, Only Say The Word is a beautiful and gentle read that will have you demanding more from this talented writer.