Monday, January 17, 2022

"History of the Rain" by Niall Williams

There is a moment in the novel History of the Rain by Irish writer Niall Williams where the narrator, a young woman suffering from “a sickness of the blood,” says this about books and literature: 

“I can’t remember who said it, but it’s true that whenever anyone reads Shakespeare they become Shakespeare. Well, the same is true for Yeats. Take an afternoon. Sit and read his poems. Any, it doesn’t really matter. Spend an afternoon, read out loud. And as you do…you rise.”


Read History of the Rain, and you will become the story. It is a story about writing and books and literature. It’s about a village named Faha in County Clare, Ireland (four hours by bus to Dublin) with a cast of characters as only could be invented by an Irish writer. Or perhaps Dickens. It’s a story about a family and family tragedy. You know it’s about tragedy because parts, or people, are missing from the outset. And the story is about why.


And it’s a story about love.


“Plain” Ruth Swain, as she describes herself, is in the attic bedroom of her house in Faha. It’s the house where she and her twin brother Aeney were born, Aeney first, of course, because he likely raced to get out. Her mother has lived in this same house since she was born, and of all the suitors she could have married, the one she chose was the Stranger, the one who ignored her when she walk along the bank of the River Shannon into the village. Virgil Swain was staring at the river and seemed completely unaware because he was unaware. Until the time when he comes to realize that he’s in love with her.


Niall Williams

Ruth is suffering from an illness, never officially identified but it’s what must be leukemia. And she’s trying to discover her father, and the only way she has to do that is to read the books he read, more than 3,000 of them. And as she reads, her father’s story gradually unfolds, as do the stories of her mother, her brother, and herself.


It is a marvelous story.


Williams is the author of several plays and the novels Four Letters of LoveAs It Is in HeavenThe Fall of LightOnly Say the WordBoy in the WorldBoy in ManThis is Happiness, and John, a fictional account of the past year of the Apostle John. History of the Rain, published in 2014, was longlisted for the Booker Prize and has been translated into several languages. With his wife, Christine, he’s published four books about their life in County Clare, Ireland. He’s also written several screenplays for television and film.


I usually read quickly. I started reading History of the Rain and deliberately slowed myself down. It took less than the first chapter for me to see I was holding something remarkable in my hands. It’s a novel in which every sentence is worth reading, at least once. It’s a story that you become part of. It’s a hymn to literature and writing. I read nothing else for a week, and when I finished, I had tears in my eyes because it was a great story and because I didn’t want it to end.


And it doesn’t.

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