Words and Music: On the Work of Niall Williams by Leonard Engel

Those who are Irish, part Irish, or have an interest in things Irish are bound to enjoy Niall Williams’s 2019 novel This Is Happiness. Even readers who fall into none of these categories are likely to enjoy it.

The author of numerous books about Ireland, Williams is perhaps best known for History of the Rain, which was long-listed for the UK Man Booker Prize in 2014. Both that novel and This Is Happiness are set in Faha, a small village in County Clare in western Ireland, bounded by Galway on the north, Tipperary on the east, Limerick and Kerry on the south, and the Atlantic Ocean on the west. Among other things, both books are concerned with a well-known Irish trait—storytelling. The former’s title sets up a clear continuity to This Is Happiness, the first chapter of which contains only one sentence—“It had stopped raining.” The second chapter begins:

Nobody in Faha could remember when it started. Rain there on the western seaboard was a condition of living. It came straight-down and sideways, frontwards, backwards and any other wards God could think of. It came in sweeps, in waves, sometimes in veils. It came dressed as drizzle, as mizzle, as mist, as showers . . . as a wet fog, as a damp day, a drop, a dreeping, and an out-and-out downpour. It came at any time of the day and night, and in all seasons . . . until in Faha your clothes were rain and your skin was rain and your house was rain with a fireplace. It came off the grey vastness of an Atlantic that threw itself against the land. It came like a judgement, or, in benign version, like a blessing God had forgotten he had left on. . . . 

All of which, to attest to the one truth: in Faha, it rained.

But now, it had stopped.

Like a heavy, dreary garment suddenly lifted, the rain’s stopping is a clever metaphor for the story that unfolds. As the sudden sunlight relieves the dreariness of the oppressive rain, Faha is about to undergo electrification that will bring light to the village and relieve darkness in homes. Residents of Faha have been living like their ancestors in the Middle Ages.

The story is told in present time by Noel Crowe, in his late 70s, recalling when he was 17 in the late 1950s and goes to live with his grandparents, Doady and Ganga. His mother has recently died, and his bereft father has no recourse but to place his son in his parents’ hands, temporarily. Noe, as he’s called, having promised his mother he would become a priest, has been in a seminary but is having doubts of faith. When his mother falls ill, he returns to Dublin to assist her, but she suddenly dies; he then finds himself in the backward village of Faha with grandparents who were not expecting him. He is not in a happy place. How he deals with religious doubts and manages grief and guilt over his mother’s death while living a very different life with his grandparents is the subplot that Williams develops over the course of the novel.

One of the most unsentimental, yet poignant, elements in Williams’s tale is the juxtaposition of these sad events in Noe’s youth with his ruminations as an older person. Interspersing the thoughts and actions of 17-year-old Noe with later reflections about his younger self is one of the many pleasures of the book. Here, for instance, is the elder Noe reflecting on his father after his mother’s death:

Your father is a mystery it takes your whole life to unravel. It was a common stupidity then to think of your father as unreachable. I did not try to reach him until twenty years later, the year he was dying, and the first time I ever called him by his name. I’m older now than he was when he died and appreciate something of what it must have taken for him to stay living.

If Noe’s youthful struggles comprise the subplot, the main plot is his relationship with a man named Christy, about 70 years old, who is one of the workers who erect the poles that will bring electricity to the village. Christy has made arrangements to stay with Noe’s grandparents before they knew they would be sheltering Noe, so Noe and Christy share a small room in the attic. Christy is a piece of work (I mean this favorably)—a mystery man who keeps his thoughts to himself but freely dispenses his emotions, accompanied by generous actions, to everyone he meets. However, nothing is as it appears. Gradually, he reveals to Noe that his real purpose in coming to Faha is to ask forgiveness from a woman still living in the village named Annie Mooney (now Mrs. Gaffney, widower of the town chemist), whom he had harmed a half century earlier; the unraveling of this story and Noe’s involvement in it makes up the central action of the book.

The focal point of the culture in many stories set in Irish villages is the Roman Catholic Church, and this certainly holds true for Faha. The action begins during Holy Week, with a description of the solemn services, the two priests who tend to the laity (including intricate relationships between parishioners), the work they do, the clothes they wear, and the food they prepare. In addition, Williams is nearly obsessive in his attempt to recreate the pulse of rural life—picturesque landscapes, dusty dirt roads, farms with their distinctive animals, and, of course, the people. There may be too much minute information for some readers, but this is a small quibble in a book that tries, and remarkably succeeds, in rendering the essence, the spirit of place, in the parish of Faha at this moment in time.

Two other thematic motifs recur throughout the book: the role of storytelling and the passion for music. Each of the main characters has a story to tell, and often tells it idiosyncratically, as Noe describes of his grandfather Ganga:

Once he got going, my grandfather’s way of telling a story was to go pell-mell, throwing Aristotle’s unities of action, place, and time into the air and in a tumult let the details tumble down the stairs of his brain and out of his mouth, O now! . . . and one of the tenets of the local poetics was that a story must never arrive at the point, or risk conclusion. And because in Faha, like in all country places, time was the only thing people could afford, all stories were long, all storytellers took their, and your, and anyone else’s, time, and all gave it up willingly.

Christy’s story is the most dynamic—and heartbreaking. We learn not only what he did to Annie Mooney and his plans to make amends, but also, surprisingly, that he is in no hurry to do so. Music, the book’s other key element, appears to be the cause of his delay. Every free night they have, Noe and Christy get on their bicycles and pedal to various pubs to listen to music, hoping to hear a fiddler, Junior Crehan, who is famous in the county for his playing. They never hear him together, but they do experience some poignant and thought-provoking sessions. While listening one night to two elderly fiddlers and a woman playing a concertina, Noe reflects that “the more the musicians played, the more it struck me that Irish music has a language of its own, accommodating expression of ecstasy and rapture and lightness and fun as well as sadness and darkness, and loss, and that in its rhythms and repetitions was the trace history of humanity thereabouts, going round and round.” Having had lessons in the past, Noe, encouraged by Christy, eventually takes up the fiddle again.

While never getting to hear Junior, Christy and Noe’s search for him on their bikes, walking up hills, coasting down, and visiting various pubs, becomes a kind of Irish-tinged quest for the Holy Grail that leads to two defining moments in Christy’s story, each marked by his singing the same song to Annie Mooney. Here is the second of those moments:

He sang as he had before, shut-eyed, head back and arms down. He sang the same song he had sung outside her window in the night. He sang it as if no one was listening but her. And all of Faha felt the same. In the face of raw feeling, through a perfect stillness people made themselves invisible. Christy sang all the verses. He sang as though he was sending the song after her, as though the air and words of it could escape the confines of time and space and soon enough reach the next place where she was gone.

When he was finished there was not a sound but for the original ones of river and air. 

Christy’s “raw feeling,” his otherworldly singing, is the climactic moment of his story. Williams attempts to create a beatific “perfect stillness,” suspending and freezing the entire scene—the river, the air, the landscape—so that it is indelibly etched forever in the hearts of the observers who “made themselves invisible.”

This ethereal moment has certainly affected Noe, who now takes his fiddle whenever he goes out. One evening in a pub “on the outer roads,” he relates:

I heard a thin man in a dark suit, with an easy expression . . . and that man was Junior Crehan. He was neither showy nor august, but he had the authority of tradition in him and the sense of that place. The feeling of it can’t be captured. I kept turning to look at Christy, because we’d done it, we’d found him, and I wanted to see the joy I knew would be in his face.

It was there, even though he wasn’t.

Listening to Junior play, a key turned in me and a door opened, just not the one I expected. I knew I could never be a player like that . . . but knew too that music and story would be part of what I would be.

Williams masterly brings the two motifs, music and storytelling, together in both Christy’s and Noe’s narratives. He does not do this in the form of the 19th century’s “well-made novel,” where everything is neatly tied up at the end and the characters, as E. M. Forster once remarked, all appear dead. Instead, Williams renders his characters and their stories in human, compassionate, tragic, and joyful ways, planting them in our hearts and minds. These people live and breathe—and they remain with us long after we have finished the book. ♦

Leonard Engel, Professor Emeritus of English at Quinnipiac University, lives in Hamden, Connecticut, with his wife Moira McCloskey. He can be reached at Len.Engel@quinnipiac.edu.

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