By Niall Williams
Published by Bloomsbury, 2014
The words of Jane Austen, Robert Lewis Stevenson, Charles Dickens and so many others, are woven like snail trails across the cover of this book. They are only visible when light strikes them in just the right way, so I didn’t notice them until I was about a hundred pages in and had found a sunny spot to read. When I did notice them they made perfect sense, because this book is all about stories; those that have been written down and those that are told, and how both make up a life.
Ruth Swain is the narrator of this story and she speaks to her readers directly, from her sick bed in the attic of the house in which she and her twin brother Aeney were born, in the small village of Faha, County Clare. It is a house that has seen fire and flood, and from a window in the attic roof, Ruth can see the constant fall of rain. She is surrounded by her father’s library of books (3958 to be exact, all catalogued and frequently referenced). She is telling us his story, and hers. It is a story of life swimming upstream, and she tells it in that particular Irish way that meanders like the Shannon.
And it is this meandering that will either delight or frustrate. The first half of the book is an ode to the kind of Ireland so many fell in love with after watching Ballykissangel. If not for a peppering of twenty-first century colloquialisms we could be reading about any time in the past century (though to Ruth, a Facebook is a book ‘where faces have been’). It is also an ode to everyday tales and storytelling, with fragments of family history and local lore flowing like tributaries towards the main story, which we do not really get into until half way through the book. I loved the beautiful lyrical Irishness of it all, and was tempted, on more than one occasion, to read a paragraph out load in my best Irish accent, but I did want dear Ruth to get to the point a little quicker.
Once she did, I couldn’t put the book down. I fell a little in love with Virgil, her hapless father, and finally realised what all the stories were for. I finished the book wishing that a few of the hundreds of stories she started had been given just a few more lines, but I am grateful for the one she told, and the way she told it.
Which brings me to the real author: Nyall Williams is an Irishman in love with words and books and reading. The History of the Rain is his eighth novel and it was long listed for the 2014 Man Booker Prize. But don’t let that put you off, I understood every word and despite recurring tales of loss, it sang with the poetry of love and hope. Here is one of those tributaries, a story with no beginning or end.
Tommy is a gentle man and he loves Breda with a kind of folklore love. She’s losing her hair now and bits of it land in the dinners she cooks and the scones she bakes, but Tommy doesn’t object, he sees the hairs and eats away.
History of the Rain now sits on the shelf I have dedicated to books worth saving in a fire or a flood – it is book number 43 if you’re interested, which seems a bit impoverished by contrast. But I’m a slow reader constantly distracted by life, need I say more?
Produced and recorded for Radio Northern Beaches, Sydney