Niall Williams, History of the Rain (Bloomsbury 2014)
Before the meeting: I fell in love with this book at the first paragraph:
The longer my father lived in this world the more he knew there was another to come. It was not that he thought this 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.
That’s nineteen-year-old Ruth Swain, whose mother is a MacCarroll, writing from her sickbed in a book-filled room at the top of a house in the tiny Irish village of Faha, where it has been raining for centuries.
Ruth has inherited her father’s vast library and her head is filled with the books she has read while sick, especially the novels of Dickens. As she tells us the story of her family – her grandparents Irish and English, her mother Mary, her father Virgil and her twin brother Aeneas whom everyone calls Aeny – her prose bristles with references to those books, usually taking the intertextuality to a comic extreme by naming the book’s publisher, date of publication, and its number on her father’s shelves. Her style, as she is told by a schoolteacher who visits her, is ‘a bit Extreme’:
I am that anachronism, a book-reader, and from this my writing has developed Eccentric Superabundance of Style, Alarming Borrowings, Erratic Fluctuations, and I Must lose my tendency to Capitalisation.
Her narrative is indeed eccentric, alarming, erratic, and overflowing with Irish charm. I totally believed in her – so much so that when I reached the Acknowledgements at the end of the story and read Niall Williams speaking in his own voice it was like coming down to earth with a thud.
Ruth’s father is a poet. We don’t get to read a single line written by him, but – in striking contrast to the poet mother in Edwina Preston’s Bad Art Mother (my blog post here) – we have total confidence in his creative process. Here’s a little of the description of the moment when he first begins to create poems, when he is ‘brimming’ after the birth of his children:
There were no words at first. At first there was a kind of beat and hum that was in his blood or in the river and he discovered how somewhere in his inner ear, a pulsing of its own, a kind of pre-language that at first he wasn’t even aware he was sounding. It was release. It was where the brimming spilled, in sound. To say he hummed is not right. Because you’ll suppose a tune or tunefulness and there was none, just a dull droning inside him.(Page 262)
As well as a multitude of writers, Ruth’s head is filled with the people of Faha, their malapropisms, their idiosyncrasies, their all-knowingness. Possibly because I spent my childhood in the Irish-Catholic diaspora of North Queensland, I didn’t recoil from what you might see as sentimentality in their portrayal, but was delighted by their comic energy. Take this, for example, from the moment when the newborn twins are being baptised in river water in the kitchen of their home:
Everyone closed in around us, everyone wanted to see. It was as if our story was already being told and was moving the hearts of Faha, making people think These two will need help, for right then there was an opening of shirt buttons, a rummaging in handbags, in wallets and coat pockets, a general flurry of rooting about, and then, as the river water was being scooped from the bucket, into our swaddling on the kitchen floor came assorted Miraculous Medals, rosary beads, Memorial cards, brown and blue and green scapulars of various antiquity (and body odour), two Padre Pios, two Pope John Pauls, one Little Flower, Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, Patron-of-the-Missions card, several (because we had been Lost & Found) Saint Anthonys, one Saint Teresa of Ávila, Patron of Headache Sufferers, and from the handbag of Margaret Crowe a sort of crouched-down Lionel Messi-looking Saint Francis of Assisi, all of them well-worn and used and in our first moments in this world falling around Aeney and I now like holy human rain.(Page 269)
The only reference in that list I had to google is Lionel Messi. All the rest is vintage irish-Catholic. I was so enchanted I barely noticed that horrible ‘Aeney and I’ at the end.
I laughed out loud. I inflicted passages on my long-suffering partner. I cried, though not at the sad bits, which were the only place where the book’s hold on me slackened a little. No, it was when Ruth relents for a moment and lets her awkward and consistently rebuffed suitor wash her hair.
After the meeting: Our host gave us an excellent Irish stew and roast potatoes, which were supplemented by a salad, pastizzi from Newtown and various cheeses, chocolates and ice creams brought by the rest of us.
Not everyone had finished the book; one was still waiting for it to arrive at his local bookshop. Not everyone loved it as much as I did. But we had an animate discussion of the what-about-that-bit variety, and I wasn’t the only one who had been prompted to read sections aloud, as much for the reader’s pleasure as for the listener’s. We all had the impression that the listeners, in this case, enjoyed the experience.
I wasn’t the only one to have wept at the hair-washing incident.