1957, book review, disillusionment, elegy to a bygone life, empathy, historical fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Niall Williams, small moments, storytelling, the power of prose
Review: This Is Happiness, by Niall Williams
Bloomsbury, 2019. 380 pp. $28
Just before Easter, in Faha, a small town in county Clare, two events take place, momentous for rural Ireland in 1957: It stops raining, and Father Coffey announces that electricity is coming. Equally important to seventeen-year-old Noel Crowe, who’s visiting his grandparents from Dublin — fleeing his decision to leave the seminary —Christy McMahon arrives to stay as a boarder. That draws keen interest in Faha, as newcomers do. However, Christy’s a wise, kind-hearted man in his sixties who looks as if he’s been around the world, which impresses Noel even more and offers precisely what he needs, a mentor who has plenty to teach but a diffident manner in imparting it. From this premise comes an unusual coming-of-age novel.
For the first thirty pages, you may think that there’s no story here, even granting Williams his extraordinary prose (pick a page; you’ll find something quotable), so that This Is Happiness promises to be a slog. And I’ll admit, for a while, every time I put the book down, I kept asking myself why I continued reading. Prose alone can’t carry me through a narrative; I don’t care who’s writing it. But every time I picked the book up again, I got lost in the storytelling, and now I feel foolish for having doubted. Plenty happens in this novel, only in small moments. But as our narrator, now grown old, observes of Faha and what he learned there, “Here’s the thing life teaches you: sometimes the truth can only be reached by exaggeration.”
So it is that the uncommon sunshine affects Faha in baroque ways; the erection of poles to string electrical wires creates outlandish drama; and Christy’s arrival to work for the electric company has another, secret motive behind it. Even Father Coffey’s position as the new, young priest in town alters the path of life, though the difference between him and his elder predecessor may seem small, at first. Legions of stories crop up to explain all these mysteries; everyone in town has a different opinion, and therefore a different version to share. Life’s fuller that way.
Consequently, This Is Happiness explores the power of storytelling and how a boy receives life lessons from it; in the process, the narrative sings an elegy to life gone by, without making judgments. The advent of the new, as with electricity and a younger man in the pulpit, will change Faha forever. But the alteration isn’t evil, it’s just life.
Noel will change too. He goes by Noe, a nice descriptive touch for a young man who’s not fully formed and well aware of it; he’s also a terrific narrator. He knows everyone’s flaws, including his own — the latter perhaps too much to expect from a seventeen-year-old, even in the confusion of retrospect — but he sees with clear eye, warm heart, and empathy for all. Here, he describes his grandparents’ house during the rainy season, which is to say, most of the time:
It was the smell of bread always baking, the smell of turf-smoke, the smell of onions, of boiling, the green tongue of boiled cabbage, the pink one of bacon with grey scum like sins rising, the smell of rhubarb that grew monstrous at the edge of the dung-heap, the smell of rain in all its iterations, the smell of distant rain, of being about to rain, of recent rain, of long-ago rain, the insipid smell of drizzle, the sweet one of downpour, the living smell of wool, the dead smell of stone, the metallic ghost stench of mackerel that disobeyed the laws of matter and like Jesus outlived itself by three days.
But don’t assume the unhurried pace or repetition of phrases implies that nothing moves in Faha. Things travel great distances, in fact, but in minds and hopes, the thwarting of desires and dreams, the accommodation to that, and in music (another important presence), and laughter, the necessary curative.
To be sure, This Is Happiness follows a rhythm unusual in modern life, partly because Faha isn’t modern, as we’d define it. But if you can accept that rhythm for what it is, you’ll be richly rewarded.
Disclaimer: I received my reading copy of this book from the public library.