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

‘History of the Rain’ by Niall Williams

History-of-the-rain

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.

Australia, Author, Book review, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Ramona Koval, Setting, Text

‘By The Book: A Reader’s Guide to Life’ by Ramona Koval

By-the-book

Non-fiction – hardcover; Text Publishing; 256 pages; 2013. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

It might seem strange for a book lover to admit, but I tend to stay away from books about books. That’s because I’d rather read the books that are mentioned in the books about books.

But I made an exception for Ramona Koval’s By The Book: A Reader’s Guide to Life because I have such respect for Ramona as a journalist and broadcaster, and I was intrigued to see which books had meant a lot to her during her lifetime — a bit like an extended Triple Choice Tuesday, if you will.

And I wasn’t disappointed: this is a lovely book that entwines Ramona’s memories of growing up in Australia, heading to university, getting married, becoming a mother and pursuing a scientific, then literary career, with the books that have had an influence on her life.

It’s not strictly chronological, because many of the chapters are arranged thematically — for instance, books about travel and exploration, books about science and “big projects” and books about womanhood and relationships — but the common thread throughout is the way that the books inform Ramona’s life — and vice versa. Or, as the Australian Book Review, so cleverly pointed out, it is an “irresistible study of the symbiotic relationship, for the bookish, between life and books”.

Reading influences

Anyone who’s a reader, whether of fiction or non-fiction, will remember the person that introduced them to reading or encouraged their love of literature. For Ramona, it was her mother, a Jewish Holocaust survivor from Poland, who settled in Australia after the war and spent what little leisure time she had reading. The opening lines of the book sum it up well:

Reading a book, my mother would stretch out in our lounge room on one of the deep purple divans that would be made up later into beds, her soft body covered in a blanket, her attention absorbed by the pages in her hands. She was lost to us.

And her father, also a Jewish Holocaust survivor, introduced her to the power of storytelling at an early age by telling her dark moral fables about not reaching for things beyond your grasp, “the opposite of romantic stories about heroic adventures and magic powers and brave quests”.

A book for book lovers

Similarly, anyone who’s a reader will remember when they joined a library for the first time. For Ramona, it was the intimate nature of Camberwell Mobile Library — much less imposing and daunting “for immigrant families like mine” than the main library — which became such a source of great joy when she joined it, aged 10.

So Mama took my hand and got me registered, and I had a card of which I was as proud as my parents were of our house. I was shown which books were for children and which for grown-ups. But I quickly tired of the children’s section. I discovered that, as I lay on my belly on the bus floor, with its smell of lino and rubber, I could read the spines in the adult section. There I spied Kafka and Kazantzakis, Kerouc and Koestler. There I learned to put things in alphabetical order.

Of course, I could keep on quoting endless chunks of this book, because I identified with so much of it — how we grow and change as readers over time, how we pursue certain themes and topics in our reading, how we learn and grow from what we discover and how literature expands our horizons. But I won’t, because you really need to read this book to see for yourself how brilliantly Ramona nails the relationship between a person’s life (and experiences) and the books that they read.

What I liked most was how the narrative expertly interweaves Ramona’s own story with stories by other people. And even though she’s incredibly well read, it’s certainly not pompous or elitist, but very down to earth, warm and conversational — just like her broadcasting style. In fact, opening the pages is a bit like sitting down with Ramona over a cup of tea and having a lovely old natter about books. It’s such an enjoyable treat — and I can honestly say I was sad when I came to the last page.

Fortunately, the journey doesn’t end there, because By the Book: A Reader’s Guide to Life has an appendix listing all the books mentioned in the text so you can pursue them at your own leisure. Needless to say, I’ve already added several to my wishlist — and no doubt, you will too.

Allen & Unwin, Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, historical fiction, Lisa Lang, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Utopian Man’ by Lisa Lang

Utopian-man

Fiction – Kindle edition; Allen & Unwin; 264 pages; 2010.

What a lovely surprise this Australian book turned out to be!

Lisa Lang’s debut novel, Utopian Man, was joint winner of the 2009 Australian/Vogel Literary Award. It is based on the life of  Edward William (E.W.) Cole, a legendary eccentric who built an amazing retail emporium in Melbourne during the 1880s.

His pièce de résistance was a fabulous three-storey book arcade, supposedly filled with a million books, where readers were encouraged to sit and browse and use like a library. This was later expanded to include a tea room, a conservatory and a live monkey display. Bands would perform regular lunch-time concerts there, too.

And if that wasn’t enough, Cole also installed a printing press to publish pamphlets (often political or issue-based) and his own books, mainly for children — indeed, many Australian readers of a certain vintage will be familiar with Cole’s Funny Picture Book, which was filled with poetry and puns and humorous drawings. (You can read this in its entirety on Project Gutenberg.)

An eccentric’s life

This novel doesn’t really have a plot other than to chart E.W. Cole’s life in two-yearly increments. This allows you to see how his business expanded from the time of the arcade’s opening to his death in 1918 and gives you glimpses into his blissfully happy family life — he married a faithfully devoted much younger wife, Eliza, with whom he had six children, and they all lived in a rather lavish apartment (what we, today, might call a penthouse) above the book arcade.

But the narrative, which is written in a lovely Victorian-style prose, is far from predictable. There are little scandals and tragedies everywhere — including the unexpected death of Ruby, Cole’s 8-year-old daughter, to scarlet fever; an older son who becomes an opium addict; and an employee who steals the arcade’s takings — and there are brushes with extra-marital affairs, spiritualism and politics. In fact, Alfred Deakin, whom Australians know as the “father of federation”, has a starring role (he was a close friend of Cole’s, though that friendship came to a bitter end when Deakin became the second Prime Minister of Australia and helped usher in the White Australia Policy).

Interspersed throughout are flashbacks that recount Cole’s time on the goldfields, where he befriended a Chinese man when racism — the “yellow peril” — was rife. But while Cole made enough money on the diggings to escape — he set up a market stall selling books in Melbourne, the first step towards much greater commercial success — there are hints that something dark and troubling happened while he was searching for gold. You have to read a good two-thirds of the book to find out what that was — and I’m not about to reveal that here.

Melbourne’s history

One of the most successful aspects of Utopian Man is the way in which Lang captures the mood and spirit of an ever-changing Melbourne during the late Victorian and early Federation periods. She manages to evoke a particular time and place so effortlessly that history truly comes alive in these pages. Here we have a provincial town turned into a booming metropolis thanks to the gold rush, but then the depression hits, the banks close and destitution is on every corner — but Cole, good-hearted man that he is, refuses to make any of his staff redundant and chooses instead to expand his business rather than consolidate it.

Indeed, I came away with the impression that Cole was not only hugely generous — perhaps to the point of being weak — he was a man before his time. He champions equality for all and cannot understand when people poo-poo his idea that the colour of a person’s skin does not matter, we are all human underneath. He seems, in many ways, to be almost too good to be true.

All in all, Utopian Man is a charming book, which is an utter delight to read. It will especially appeal to fans of Victorian-era novels and those who love books (I guess that’s all of you, then). And the best bit is it is readily available outside of Australia in both ebook and paperback editions — hoorah!

Author, Book review, Faber and Faber, Fiction, Ireland, John McGahern, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘The Dark’ by John McGahern

TheDark

Fiction – paperback; Faber & Faber; 192 pages; 2000.

First published in 1965, this aptly titled book is about one boy’s painful adolescence and his confused, ambiguous relationship with his violent widower father.

Set in rural Ireland during the 1950s and 60s, the unnamed protagonist longs to escape his father’s abusive shadow. But the only real options open to him are the priesthood or the farm.

When he concentrates on his schoolwork and wins a scholarship to university, it looks like he might have found the escape route he was looking for. But how will he explain his decision to his cantankerous and manipulative father? And if he leaves, how will his younger siblings cope without anyone to defend them?

The Dark is John McGahern’s second novel. It is not quite as accomplished or as complicated as his first (although he does play around with point of view, which adds a level of inventiveness), but it is characterised by the same things that made his debut so striking: the prose is lovingly crafted and poetry-like; the subject matter is stark; the characterisation is painfully realistic; and the atmosphere is claustrophobic and oppressive but brims with possibility.

From the very first page the reader is immersed in a world of domestic violence. By the third chapter the protagonist is sharing a bed with his father where he loathes the strokes and kisses he must endure (whether these are sexual or not is never made explicit). And later there are many grimy descriptions of masturbation. It is not a pleasant read, but it is a riveting one nonetheless.

The Dark is very reminiscent of James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in its depiction of a young teenager’s sexual awakening in a country constrained and constricted by the Catholic Church.

But there’s more to this book than “the sins of the body”. McGahern explores the complex love/hate relationship between his two main characters — the eager-to-please-but-resentful son and the moody-and-abusive father — with delicacy and aplomb.

Unbearably painful in places, it is a fascinating portrait of what it is like to be young and forced to make difficult choices that will impact on the rest of your life and your familial relationships.