Monday 21 October 2019

This is Happiness by Niall Williams: A gently hilarious and unashamed love letter to rural Ireland of old

Fiction This is Happiness Niall Williams Bloomsbury, hardback, 400 pages, €23.80

Great gift: author Niall Williams
Great gift: author Niall Williams
This is Happiness by Niall Williams

Hilary A White

Longlisted for the Booker in 2014 (for History of the Rain) and awaiting further developments on a mooted film adaptation of 1997 debut novel Four Letters of Love, Niall Williams really should be louder on our radar than he currently transmits.

The Co Clare writer - via Dublin and New York - has published nine novels to varying overseas fanfare and four non-fiction works (co-written with partner Christine Breen), and has had plays of his produced in the Abbey. And yet his name is not part of the literary conversation in this supposed golden age of Irish writing.

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If This is Happiness is unable to shake up this injustice then nothing can, you feel. Williams' 10th novel here shuffles on to the stage with nothing but exquisite language and a rosy pastoral saga, and it strikes you as precisely the thing to upend ides of what Irish literary fiction has to offer in this day and age.

It had stopped raining in the fictional Clare village of Faha. Such a thing seemed miraculous to the local inhabitants because rain was part of life in the coastal enclave. We are in the 1950s as modernisation is starting to creep across the newly fledged Republic. The Rural Electrification Scheme has reached this wind-lashed community, bringing with it rumours of change that will one day become jealous promises.

Noe Crowe is 17 and suitably bewildered by the ways of the world. He is in Faha from Dublin for another stint with his grandparents Doady and Ganga. A worker lodging with them is assisting with the erection of telegraph poles in the area, but there is a romantic transgression from long ago that he must make amends for while he is in Faha.

Noe, meanwhile, is negotiating the path of emerging adulthood and young love and the blurs that accompany both. And with the sun shining with freakish, almost portentous, consistency this summer, things are becoming nicely unseated.

But plot in a way feels like a secondary concern in This is Happiness. As Noe looks back on his time in the village, the novel is an unashamed love letter to an Ireland that is near-unrecognisable in its sleepy rural oddness and unhurried angles of logic, things that connectivity with the wider world would gradually erode over time. Not Blarney or fey folksiness, Williams' world is that of ripe characters waltzing in technicolour before your eyes, all their idiosyncrasies and inclinations dazzling to behold. The effect is extraordinarily charming but undercut with an aged wisdom that has been earned with an acceptance of human diversity and elusive cosmic patterns. In just one paragraph describing parishioners attending Mass, for example, Williams embeds us wholly in the world of the "Fahaeans", and once there, proceeds to make us smile heartily and often.

"A short almost perfectly round man with eyes always near to laughter and tufted hair that sat like a small wig on a football, Ganga had the large ears that God puts on old men as evidence of the humour necessary for creation."

As a narrator speaking to us in the winter of his years, Noe is one of the great gifts we will encounter in publishing this year. So tangible are the memories he stirs up into life through these stunning sentences that a slightly euphoric register wafts up now and again.

It is why this novel is a revelation. The world is chock-full of redemption through pain and all the classes of ugliness and unhappiness that can befall a character en route there. Not this time, however. To borrow a word that crops up occasionally here, Williams' sunny, grainy, gently hilarious saga is an "elsewhere", a place of unashamed romance for a nostalgic tradition of storytelling, where exaggeration and eye twinkles might in fact just bring you closer to the truth. Sublime.

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