Regular readers may recall that I’ve a penchant for Irish writing, a liking for the lyrical yet pared back style of William Trevor, Colm Tóibín and John McGahern which characterises so much of the fiction I’ve read from that part of the world. Not Niall Williams’ work, though, if This is Happiness is anything to go by. Written in luxuriant prose, this coming-of-age tale winds back and forth over a single memorable summer which sees the electrification of a small town on the west coast of Ireland.
Seventeen-year-old Noe Crowe is spending the summer with his grandparents, Ganga and Doady, having turned his back on the seminary where he was training to become a priest. The Wednesday before Easter, with the whole of Faha in church apart from Noe, the seemingly incessant rain stops. At around the same time, a man in his sixties turns up, introducing himself to Noe before taking off for a naked swim, much to Noe’s astonishment. This is Christy, employed by the electricity board to reaffirm all those in Faha signed up for electrification and lodging with Ganga and Doady while he does so. Noe finds himself accompanying Christy on his rounds, listening to his tales of travel and adventure until Christy confesses he’s come to Faha to ask forgiveness of the woman he jilted decades ago. Noe has his own love troubles, conceiving an unrequited passion for the doctor’s beautiful daughter who tends him when one of the electricity poles falls on him. As the seventy-five-year-old Noe looks back over that long dry summer when Faha stood on the cusp of change, he tells a poignant story of love, redemption and the secret of happiness.
As, from this, you can probably already tell, for storytelling, there were two principal styles available in Faha, the plain and the baroque
Perhaps it’s because I was half-expecting the aforementioned spare style not having read one of Williams’ novels before that it took me a little while to adjust to his relaxed, discursive storytelling which takes its readers down a multitude of byways. Once over that, I loved its lushness and affectionate humour.
He didn’t mind at all that when Ganga came calling he took an old paper or two back with him and in that way kept up to date with what was new in the world last week
This is a novel choc-full of stories, peopled with engaging characters, not least Noe, our narrator, and Christy, the man who becomes his friend. Occasionally, the Vaseline-lensed nostalgia of it all felt a little too much – this was a time when grinding poverty was the norm in rural Ireland – but Noe reminds us of that poverty sufficiently often for it not to jar. Williams knows not just how to spin a yarn expertly but how to work it into an entire glorious sunlit tapestry of a community about to plant its feet in the twentieth-century fifty years into it. I loved it. Time to explore his backlist, I think.
Bloomsbury Publishing: London, 2019 9781526609335 400 pages Hardback