Book Review by Frank O’Shea
Niall Williams. THIS IS HAPPINESS. Bloomsbury, 2019. 380 pp.
For they were full of sunlight and mist, wind and storm, rain and rock / and they did not fret about tumble dryers or grouse about the menu, / for the wind would not let them strut, the rain made them weak ….
(David Quin, Pity the Islanders, Lucht an Oileain)
The opening chapter is short. ‘It had stopped raining.’ That’s it. Turn to a new page for Chapter Two which describes the fictional township of Faha in west Clare where the rain that was ‘a condition of living’ had indeed stopped. Now, move forward almost 400 magical pages and we reach the final sentences. ‘Somewhere just past Considine’s I lifted my face. I held out my palm. It had started raining.’
The story covers a period of six or eight weeks from Spy Wednesday to early June when the town and parish had what the first-person narrator calls Spanish weather. He is a 78-year old man named Noe – short for Noel – recalling the events of that short interlude of sunshine when he was 17 years old and had just left the seminary. Simple arithmetic suggests that it was either 1958 or the following year, a time when Ireland was older and West Clare older still. It is the world you find in David Quin’s beautiful poem celebrating Lucht an Oileain, the people of the Island.
This is a love story, one that could be easily summarised in a single paragraph, but that would be to demean it. Because it is above all a paean to a simpler time, simpler people and a simpler meaning of happiness. There are no villains in the story, no criminals or felons, no dark deeds or trickery: a few gossips perhaps, but even their patterns were well enough understood to be harmless.
So we concentrate on Faha, a place so small and insignificant that ‘if you could find it, you’d be on your way somewhere else.’ It was one of the last parts of the country to get the poles and wires and gadgetry of the Electricity Supply Board, brought there by workers from Galway or Dublin or Tipperary. Foreigners.
One of these outsiders is Christy who turns up one day with the responsibility of persuading the inhabitants that they should allow workers on to their land to set the poles and string the wires. Christy and Noe form a friendship. Each is unlucky in romance, one because he has never experienced it and has to deal with the sudden torment of the three beautiful daughters of the local GP, the other because he once left a woman at the altar and has been trying to find her ever since. I give nothing away if I say that neither situation is resolved in a conventional way.
The other two characters are Ganga and Doady, names given by Noe in the distant past when words like grandfather and grandmother were too cumbersome for his infant elocution. Christy is taken in as a lodger by the old couple, so all four of the main participants in the drama are within touching and speaking distance of each other.
Niall Williams grew up in Dublin and then worked in America before coming with his wife to live in the beautiful, if inelegantly named, village of Kiltumper in West Clare. In one reading, this book is his triumphant celebration of that place, his thanks to its people and geography, and to its culture – historical, practical and, of course, musical. This is small town Ireland of the 1950s, not as seen impatiently by Edna O’Brien or critically by John McGahern or severely by Patrick McCabe. Fictional Faha is backward and sluggish, but the people are comfortable in their existence, as sparing with blame as with praise: it is a place ‘where there was little culture of complaint.’
You will find yourself reading the book slowly, partly because the author is speaking slowly, in no hurry with his story, happy as the mood takes him to wander into elegant parentheticals that spill onto succeeding pages. But you are held up too with admiration, repeating phrases that seem musical in their composition. Here is Noe recovering from an accident, under ‘the lunatic jurisdiction of a cocktail of medications.’ Here is Dilly Walsh ‘who was all the time trying to escape the blessing of her fecundity.’ Here is Doady, handling some situation ‘with a Kerrywoman’s peninsular intransigence.’
Or delight in the confusion that was the scramble to the Communion rails at Mass or the equally disorganised excuse for a cinema queue. Here is a night scene well known to those from mid-century rural Ireland.
An occasional car announced itself in sound and light long before its appearance, the eyes of the headlamps opening the countryside, making brief orange discs of a fox’s gaze, before leaving all back where it found it. Each car that passed was window-steamed and packed tight with passengers. A sleeved arc in the windscreen, it motored down the centre of the road on an Easter excursion of small revelment and loose steering.
Don’t be put off by the book’s title, which can be read as a gentle reproach to the modern trend for books encouraging self-improvement, sometimes with a short word in the title, gapped to cool our blushes. This is a reminder that in the artless time in which the story is set, satisfaction was in the simple things of rural living. And just as you begin to wonder whether this deserves a deeper analysis, the prose gets in the way and you are carried along on a wave of language and images that remind you what a great writer can do with words.
And, however rare it may be for a reviewer to say so, great is the appropriate adjective for this writing, the kind you imagine academics reserving for Thackeray or Hardy. Niall Williams made the Booker longlist with History of the Rain and has a number of wonderful novels going back to Four Letters of Love in 1997. It will be for others to rank that output: for this reviewer it is enough to vote this as his best.
And no, you cannot borrow my copy, because I am about to start reading it again.
Frank O’Shea is a member of the Tinteán editorial collective