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.

10 books, Book lists

10 books from Ireland

10-booksIn honour of St Patrick’s Day*, I thought I would list my favourite Irish novels.

I went through an Irish reading phase in my early 20s (at about the same time I discovered U2 — but that’s another story), so the list reflects a weird mix of cosy fiction and hard-hitting, award-winning tomes. Note, however, that it’s a little inadequate on the classics front, with not a Joyce or an Edna O’Brien in sight!

The list is in alphabetical order according to author’s name.

* Yes, I know that I am posting this a few days early, but I’ll be too busy downing Guinness on Friday to think about blogging here!

Here’s my list of Irish novels  (arranged in alphabetical order by author’s name):

Book of Evidence by John Banville (1989)

For a period of my life I considered John Banville to be my favourite author. Ever. I read Book of Evidence, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker and won the Guinness Peat Aviation Award, in my early 20s and thought it was the most profound novel I’d ever read. I was going through a phase of reading books with a dark, morbid edge and this — the story of a man who steals a painting from a wealthy friend and then kills the chambermaid who catches him in the act — fitted the bill perfectly. This book was followed up by two others (to form a trilogy) but, in my opinion, they did not surpass the grim beauty of this one. Definitely not for the faint hearted, but an interesting exploration of morals, guilt and why people do bad things.

Light A Penny Candle
by Maeve Binchy

Maeve Binchy is one of my guilty pleasures. I discovered her in my early 20s and read pretty much everything she ever wrote for the next decade, by which time I got a bit sick of her cloying tales of love and friendship. Light A Penny Candle, which is about an English girl who escapes the London Blitz by staying with a family in Ireland, was the first book Binchy wrote and the first book by her that I ever read, hence its selection here. However, if I’m honest, it could have been any one of her books — Echoes, Firefly Summer, Silver Wedding, Circle of Friends, The Copper Beech, The Glass Lake — because they are all charming, deliciously girlie and overwhelmingly Irish reads.

The Barrytown Trilogy by Roddy Doyle (1987)

This is kind of cheating, because this book is actually three novels in one, but I couldn’t resist this wonderful trilogy. It comprises The Commitments, The Snapper and The Van — all of which are set in the Dublin working-class suburb of Barrytown and which, unsurprisingly, have all been turned into films. I say unsurprisingly because Doyle’s stripped back writing style is reminiscent of a screenplay: a lot of dialogue and not much detail. But the best thing about these books is the laugh-out-loud humour. Not books to read in public then, unless you enjoy guffawing in front of strangers! My favourite is The Snapper, which is about a huge, sprawling Irish Catholic family and how they all band together when the eldest daughter falls pregnant out of wedlock but refuses to tell anyone the name of the father.

paddy clarke ha ha ha by Roddy Doyle (1993)

Sorry. I couldn’t resist choosing another Roddy Doyle book. This one received the Man Booker Prize and with good reason. It’s a delightful coming of age story told through the eyes of a 10-year-old Irish boy growing up in the 1960s. Doyle’s descriptions of childhood — particularly of peer pressure — are pitch-perfect and the language, comprising lots of Irish slang, is wonderful. The beauty of this book, however, is its clever balance of humour and pathos. A definite must read.

Seek the Fair Land by Walter Macken (1959)

This is the first part of a trilogy, which I read a couple of years ago and fell in love with. The writing is a little staid but the story is a wonderful action-packed adventure set during Cromwellian rule. The heady mix of religion, politics and history makes this a quintessential Irish read. Thoroughly recommended.

The Butcher Boy by Patrick McCabe (1992)

Like John Banville’s Book of Evidence, this is another book that got a starring role in the dark reading period that comprised my early 20s. In fact, for about a decade this was my favourite book of all time. It seared my brain in a way that no other book has really done since. It’s a dark, depressing and very twisted tale about one young boy’s murderous rampage in small town rural Ireland. As a literary feat it is exceptional: the first-person narrative of Francie’s descent into madness is captured so well that it brings goosebumps to my skin just thinking about it. But I have to issue two warnings: 1. if you don’t like violence, stay away, there are some very brutal acts depicted here; and 2.  if you’re a stickler for punctuation it might take you some time to get used to the fact that there’s not a comma or full stop in sight.

The Butcher Boy was shortlisted for the 1992 Man Booker Prize, won the 1992 Irish Times Irish Literature Prize for Fiction and was turned into a film directed by Neil Jordan in 1997.

Star of the Sea by Joseph O’Connor (2003)

This is a gripping story set on a New York-bound ship filled with hundreds of refugees fleeing the Irish potato famine in 1847. But this is not the usual “Irish potato famine fare” you might expect. It’s a complete reworking, not just of the 19th century disaster that was the famine, but also of the naval-based novel. It is incredibly detailed and multi-layered. There are stories within stories, and the narrative swings effortlessly between past and present, on board the ship and in Ireland. I’ve not read anything like it — then or since.

The Story of Lucy Gault by William Trevor (2003)

William Trevor is a much heralded Irish writer (although he lives in England), so I had long wanted to read one of his books. This one about a young girl – Lucy Gault – abandoned in error when her parents flee troubled Ireland is a heartbreaking read. The writing is restrained but the emotion resonates off the page. Tissues are very much required for this one.

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (1891)

One of the first ‘real’ Classics I ever read, I immediately fell in love with this dark morality tale. As Dorian Gray’s behaviour gets more and more outlandish, his portrait grows aged and corrupt while he remains youthful and innocent in the flesh. It’s a kind of creepy tale, but one that is endlessly fascinating. What was the message of this book? That vanity does not pay? That living a life in the pursuit of pleasure is a dishonourable one? I don’t know, but I keep meaning to re-read this novel — just as I keep meaning to explore more of Wilde’s back catalogue.

Four Letters of Love by Niall Williams (1998)

This is one of those achingly beautiful books that reminds you about the power of literature to move the spirit and touch the soul. The prose is rich and velvety, completely enveloping the reader in a warm, fuzzy embrace. The book has a dual narrative, but the stand out storyline for me — and certainly the one that sticks in my memory — is the one involving Nicholas Coughlan falling in love with the girl he doesn’t think he can have. Williams writes in such a way that the reader experiences all of Nicholas’s  joy, pain and frustration as if he was a real flesh and blood character. A gorgeous read that keeps you turning the page wondering ‘will he, won’t he?’ and leaves the reader truly believing that fate and destiny do exist!

Have you read any of these books? If so, what did you think of them? Do you agree/disagree with my choices? Can you recommend any other Irish novels that are worth reading?