Sunday 17 December 2017

Engagingly droll narrator casts a sardonic eye on post-boom Ireland

Fiction History of the Rain Niall Williams Bloomsbury, hdbk, £18.99, 368 pages

Niall Williams
Niall Williams
History of the Rain by Niall Williams

John Boland

In the village of Faha in west Clare, young Ruth Swain lies bedridden in an attic room piled high with 3,958 books and tells the story of herself, her beloved father and the family of English clergymen from which he came. Meanwhile, it rains outside.

That's it, really, though with this author there's always something else going on and indeed by the second paragraph Ruth is suggesting a deeper, more spiritual resonance to what she's relating. "We are our stories", she solemnly informs us.

"We tell them to stay alive or keep alive those who only live now in the telling." And this finds an echo 350 pages later when she draws the narrative to an end with the declaration that her father "now lives in the afterlife that is a book" and that in this troubling world "it is enough to keep hoping and to keep telling stories".

Is that true? Williams certainly thinks so and in a succession of novels, some of them bestsellers, he has perpetuated the fashionably New Agey notion that the stories of our lives, no matter how seemingly humdrum and inconsequential, somehow connect us all in meaningful ways.

Colum McCann also favours this kind of feelgood reassurance – letting the great world spin and all that – but he manages it with a knowing literary guile that lends it critical credence, whereas Williams's more directly earnest approach often sees him staying perilously close to life-affirming chicklit – as in the fatuous strivings towards transcendence of both Boy in the World and Boy and Man.

In the new novel, though, there's a welcome degree of playfulness, with Ruth an engagingly droll narrator as she casts a sardonic eye both on her neighbours and on the state of post-boom Ireland, while also name-checking the huge pile of books inherited in the attic from her father.

After a hundred pages, though, you may find yourself wondering if she's going to have something to say about all 3,958 of them, and you begin to fear that she just might.

Certainly, after 150 pages of her garrulous company I'd reached the stage of echoing Mr Bennet in Pride and Prejudice when he informed his piano-playing daughter: "You have delighted us enough."

But there were 200 more pages to go and Ruth still hadn't got round to telling us about the failed poet and farmer who was her much-loved father, about her twin brother Aeney, about what mysterious ailment had confined her to bed, or indeed about the importance of rain in all their lives.

Still, there's clearly a market out there for Williams's brand of fiction, with one enthusiastic fan declaring on that History of the Rain "may just be the best book I've ever read. I am in awe". I'm not, but let the great world spin.

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