Book Review: History of the Rain, by Niall Williams

History of the RainHistory of the Rain
by Niall Williams
Bloomsbury
2014
355 pages

One of Paul McCartney’s most poignant songs, in my view, is the heartrending “Too Much Rain.” In it, he sings about the difficulties of smiling “when your heart is full of pain.” Sometimes, the unfairness of life’s difficulties is just “too much for anyone.” It’s not right, in one life, too much rain,” McCartney sings.  

The abundance of rain in this small Irish fishing village is both literal and figurative in History of the Rain, Niall Williams’ newest novel, which is on the longlist for the 2014 Man Booker Prize.

Let me say this: I haven’t read any of the other nominees, but this one gets 5 stars out of 5 in my book. It will be on my Best Books I’ve Read in 2014 list as well as on my list of All Time Favorite books.

I was intrigued from the second paragraph.

“We are our stories. We tell them to stay alive or keep alive those who only live now in the telling. That’s how it seems to me, being alive for a little while, the teller and the told.”(pg. 1) 

A few pages further, I wasn’t sure what to make of this novel about the Swains, a poor fishing family living in Ireland. It’s narrated by a bedridden Ruth Swain (she refers to herself as “Plain Ruth Swain”) who is mourning her twin brother Aeney, who, clearly, Something Sad happened to and who is very much beloved.

“Aeney was a magical boy. I knew. We all knew. Some people make you feel better about living. Some people you meet and you feel this little lift in your heart, this Ah, because there’s something in them that’s brighter or lighter, something beautiful or better than you, and here’s the magic: instead of feeling worse, instead of feeling why am I so ordinary? you feel just the opposite, you feel glad. In a weird way you feel better, because before this you hadn’t realised or you’d forgotten human beings could shine so.” (pg. 128)

Throughout most of the novel, we’re not sure why Ruth is bedridden, nor what happened to Aeney (until closer to the end), or if that’s the reason Ruth is bedridden or what.  What we do know is that it rains constantly in Faha, that there was a grandfather who was a pole-vaulter and a salmon-catcher, and that there was an Impossible Standard that the Swains felt compelled to live up to. We know that Ruth is trying to better understand her father Virgil (yes, Virgil) by reading the 3,958 books – mostly classics – that he owned and that are stacked throughout her attic room. She references these books often in her direct narration to the reader. They’re catalogued, dropped like acorns throughout the narrative. (Someone needs to start a book club of all 3,958 of these books.)

“I love the feel of a book. I love the touch and smell and sound of the pages. I love the handling. A book is a sensual thing. You sit curled in a chair with it or like me you take it to bed and it’s, well, enveloping. Weird I am. I know. What the Hell? as Bobby Bowe says to everything. You either get it or you don’t. When my father first took me to Ennis Library I went down among the shelves and felt company, not only the company of the writers, but the readers too, because they had lifted and opened and read these books. The books were worn in a way they can only get worn by hands and eyes and minds; these were the literal original Facebooks, the books where faces had been, and I just loved it, the whole strange sense of being aboard a readership.” (pg. 62)

I seriously underestimated this book at first because I didn’t quite know where Niall Williams was taking us with this one. (It all comes together at the end.)  In the meantime, here’s what makes Niall Williams so immensely talented as a writer: somehow, you trust him as an author and he makes you, the reader, trust him because the writing in this one is fantastic. Truly, it is some of the best writing I’ve ever read.  The metaphors (“sash windows rattling like denture laughter”) are gems.

Along with the writing, Williams draws you in with unforgettable characters. Ruthie is so smart, so sensitive and insightful  (“Hope, you see, takes a long time to die,”) yet so sad without the ones she loves.

“When I call my father Virgil Swain I think he’s a story. I think I invented him. I think maybe I never had a father and in the gap where he should be I have put a story. I see this figure on the riverbank and I try to match him to the boy I have imagined, but find instead a gristle of truth, that human beings are not seamless smooth creations, they have insoluble parts, and the closer you look the more mysterious they become.” (pg. 169)

“Because, just like his father, our father was not young when we were born, there was an extra-ness to the joy. It’s not that we were unexpected, it’s that until his children were in his arms he hadn’t actually gotten further than the imagining of us. He was a poet, and the least practical man in the world. And a baby is a practical thing.

Two babies, well.”  (pg. 129)

This is probably going to be among my favorite books of 2014. I’d love to see this win The Man Booker Prize so it gets more attention. (‘Course, I haven’t read any of the others, but whatever.)

“We tell stories. We tell stories to pass the time, to leave the world for a while, or go more deeply into it. We tell stories to heal the pain of living.” (pg. 176)

With History of the Rain, Niall Williams has written exactly that kind of story.

5 stars out of 5

Highly recommended

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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