History of the Rain
2014 369 pp.
Niall Williams is not a writer I had heretofore been familiar with. I can’t imagine how I could have been so remiss. This book, his eighth novel, was long-listed for the Man Booker prize in 2014 and, most years, I will read at least one contender from that list. Last year I decided that Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake looked interesting — it was — and I have, coincidentally, a couple of other books from that list waiting their turn, but I hadn’t thought to read this one until it was mentioned in an email from a friend. And then I got it for Christmas and just last week, got ‘round to reading it — and it’s a keeper.
It’s one of those books that’s very easy to read on the surface, full of vivid descriptions and pithy observations. It has allusions to any number of books and is full of wit and cheerful erudition. It’s funny, engaging and at the same time it’s both deeply sad and hugely hopeful.
Beneath a fairly straightforward story of a man who seems “doomed” (as he says in his own words) to “fail at everything I try”, a much richer story is being told of what it means to be a success, of the question of what is a valid way to live one’s life. Metaphors of rain and water and air, of diving and soaring, run through the book and the omnipresent river Shannon is central to the story. The epigraph in the front of the book is from Ted Hughes: “Everything is on its way to the river” and therein lies the heart of the story. There is an air of other-worldliness that turns the book into a sort of allegory.
Set in the west of Ireland in County Clare, the book’s narrator is Ruth Swain, daughter of Virgil Swain. She suffers from an unidentified medical condition and is confined to a boat-like bed in an attic room that houses her father’s library. As the book starts she says “The longer my father lived in this world the more he knew there was another to come. It was not that he thought the world beyond saving, although in darkness I suppose there was some of that, but rather that he imagined there must be a finer one where God corrected His mistakes and men and women lived in the second draft of Creation and did not know despair.”
From this beginning she tells her father’s story, not so much to find him — as the dust jacket says — as to present him in a richer reality than his apparent failures.
“We are our stories. We tell them to stay alive or keep alive those who only live now in the telling. In Faha, County Clare, everyone is a long story…” says Ruth.
A lone figure, Virgil Swain has spent his life, like his father and grandfather before him, trying to live up the The Impossible Standard of the Swains. At a pivotal point in his life, he finds a spot by the river Shannon that he believes is where he belongs and there decides to take up salmon fishing — the fish that brings wisdom. It is in that spot that he meets the woman he will marry and close by that spot he will know great sorrow …
I liked this book a lot. I found it wonderfully human and warm — the narrator is funny and sympathetic and the the main characters engaging and admirable. It is a very sad book at certain points but, overall, it is full of hope and life. Recommended.