Niall Williams: History of the Rain, Bloomsbury, 2014
We met him first with Four Letters of Love, this young Dublin man returned from America and living with his wife in the wilds of Clare. Since then, Niall Williams has continued to produce fiction of the highest quality, most recently his story of the evangelist John on the island of Patmos. Not all his books have been released in this country, but his latest has, and what a gem it is.
As its title suggests, it is a book about rain. It is also about rivers; and about salmon and families and love and poetry. Or maybe it is about Impossible Aspirations, complete with capital letters.
First, let us get the rain out of the way: ‘It started raining here in the sixteenth century and hasn’t stopped. But we don’t notice and people here say “not a bad day” though the drizzle is beaded on the top of their hair or in the furrows of their brows.’ The place in question is County Clare, that part of it that is sometimes licked, sometimes washed, sometimes drowned by the eternal Shannon.
The narrator is 20-year old Ruth Swain and she is confined to her bed in an attic where she can hear the rain on the roof and see it run down the skylight. She is surrounded by 3,958 books, all of which she has read, some several times. She is able to quote from them at will – Dickens and Robert Louis Stevenson, Yeats and Emily Dickinson, Tom Hughes and T S Eliot.
If that sample seems to favour poets, it is because Ruth’s father is a poet. The trouble is that he is not a particularly successful one, certainly not by the High Standards he sets himself and which are at once the Swain inheritance and the Swain curse. His name is Virgil and we learn of his unconventional upbringing by his father, the author of The Salmon in Ireland. He in turn was a failure in the eyes of his own father, an English Reverend, because he never got the Call and left Oxford to fight the Germans instead and then came into a rundown inheritance in County Meath.
Ruth’s mother is a MacCarroll who kicks with the other foot, the dominant one in an Irish setting. She and Virgil, her failed-poet, useless-farmer husband have the kind of perfect marriage that even Maeve Binchy would hesitate to imagine. We get her family history also, starting back in the time when humans were still seaweed and progressing through the time when ‘There were no women allowed in Censorship. Some members of the committee were secretly hoping that there’d be no women allowed in Ireland, which would be fine, except for the vexed issue of ironing.’
The loving couple live in the parish of Faha where a bit of madness is acceptable, and where the neighbours eventually give up checking whether there is any sign of a maternal swelling. Ruth and her twin brother Aeny originate chastely in the rain, in a manner that would surely test the most determined of male gametes, but you will have to read about that yourself.
When the twins start school, they meet the headmistress Mrs Conheedy, a Kerry woman with ‘a face lumpy as a turnip and shoulders you could imagine her carrying a sheep on.’ It is tempting to quote that entire section, but then there would not be room to say what an astonishing book this is. Besides, if you read it, that is just one of the many parts you will find yourself re-reading and if you are not disciplined, you will never get to the end and will miss out on a conclusion that is as sad as it is inspiring.
Then there are the epigrams, scattered like gemstones to be picked up and copied into your best exercise book: ‘Writing is a sickness only cured by writing’; ‘If Shakespeare had an editor, he wouldn’t be Shakespeare’; and ‘A higher form of English is practised in Ireland, and direct statement is frowned upon.’
Here then is a book to restore your faith in reading, to make you laugh loudly and often. You will be enthralled by the way words can be used to coax you into a story that is sad and funny and uplifting and engrossing, all at the same time.
Move over, Flann O’Brien; you have been sitting on your own for far too long. Here is a fellow-Dubliner exiled to the country, living in a place called Kiltumper, a name for which they would criticise you if you made it up.
It is unfair to other novelists that they have to compete against writing of this quality.