It had stopped raining.
Okay, I’m now a Niall Williams convert.
This is Happiness is a delight of a book, from start to finish. Full of wonderful, poignant story-telling and rich, humorous characterisation. It is proudly Irish, with glorious descriptions of the weather and the matter-of-fact grimness and poverty of everyday life in County Clare during the 1950’s. Unfulfilled love, lost causes and a crisis of faith sit at the heart of the story, yet on every page, happiness, or it’s possibility, is never far away.
Seventeen year old Noah (Noe) Crowe is sent to live with his grandparents, Doady and Ganga, in (fictional) Faha, West County Clare after he drops out of seminary school. He is remembering this pivotal year in his life from the more mature vantage point of 78. The time is 1950’s Ireland. Electricity is slowing coming to the rural areas, but no-one is in a hurry to make it happen.
I sometimes think that the worse thing a young person can feel is when you can find no answer to the question of what you are supposed to do with this life you’ve been given….I can now say that another version of that happens in old age, when it occurs to you that since you’ve lived this long you must have learnt something, so you open your eyes before dawn and think: What is it that I’ve learned, what is it I want to say?
Also newly arrived in Faha is Christy McMahon, an ‘electric man’, lodging with Doady and Ganga. He has his own story to tell, and as is the way with such things, his story and the story of Faha become intimately bound up together. The stories are told with nostalgia and kindness rather than sentiment. There is a sense of enchantment as each one unfolds.
Story was the stuff of life, and to realise you were inside one allowed you to sometimes surrender to the plot, to bear a little easier the griefs and sufferings and to enjoy more fully the twists that came along the way.
There is a vague sense of magic realism, or a dreamy quality, to Williams writing that I found beguiling and familiar, which made sense when I read that Williams is a huge fan of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and One Hundred Years of Solitude. This is Happiness is far more whimsical than magical (Brigadoon springs to mind), but you can feel the Marquez influences at play.
I came close to underlining half the book. It was a book I savoured slowly, so that each act of kindness, each story, each moment could reveal itself in the fullness of time. I promptly passed the book on to Mr Books as soon as I finished because I wanted him to experience the happiness of reading such an immersive, luminous, entertaining story too.
Once he got going, my grandfather’s way of telling a story was to go pell-mell, throwing Aristotle’s unity of action, place and time into the air and in a tumult let the details tumble down the stairs of his brain and out of his mouth. He had grown up in an age when storytelling was founded on the forthright principles of passing the time and dissolving the hours of dark. …To conquer both time and reality then, one of the unwritten tenets of the local poetics was that a story must never arrive at the point, or risk conclusion. And because in Faha, like in all country places, time was the only thing people could afford, all stories were long, all storytellers took their, and your, and anyone else’s time, and all gave it up willingly, understanding that tales of anything as aberrant and contrary as human beings had to be long, not to say convoluted, had to be so long that they wouldn’t, and in fact couldn’t, be finished this side of the grave, and only for the fire gone out, and the birds of dawn singing might be continuing still.
My book club was almost universal in its love and admiration for This is Happiness. The only one who struggled was one who prefers a more plot-driven story. We highly recommend it to anyone who loves good story-telling in all its glory, with characters to warm the cockles of your heart.
I managed to read this during Reading Ireland month, but obviously the review was slow to come. Given that Ireland, County Clare and it’s weather are very distinct characters in this book as well, they deserve more of a mention. But I’m tired after being back at work, wishing I was still on holiday with unhurried time up my sleeve and finding it difficult to string my thoughts together.
Rain there on the western seaboard was a condition of living. It came straight-down and sideways, frontwards, backwards and any other wards God could think of. It came dressed as drizzle, as mizzle, as mist, as showers, frequent and widespread, as a wet fog, as a damp day, a drop, a dreeping, and an out-and-out downpour. It cam the find day, the bright day, and the day promised dry. It came at any time of the day or night, and in all seasons, regardless of calendar and forecast, until in Faha your clothes were rain and your skin was rain and your house was rain with a fireplace.
- Shortlisted for Best Novel in the Irish Book Awards
- Longlisted for the 2020 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction
Favourite Quote: hard to pick just one, but Williams’ descriptions of being young, on the verge of adulthood, were spectacular. They brought back all the angst and yearning of my own young adulthood.
when you’re young, the unlived life in you, all that future, urgent and unreachable, can be unbearable.
- History of the Rain (2014)
- This is Happiness (2019)
I too live in a village in the west of County Clare, and have done so now for more than half of my life, so although Faha is fictional I know it probably better than anywhere else on earth. When I finished the History of the Rain my imagination simply didn’t leave. It may never leave now. I have come to the belief that in a single parish is all of humanity. You just have to look hard enough.Big Issue North 2019
Book: This is Happiness | Niall Williams ISBN: 9781526609359 Publication Date: 29th September 2020 (first published November 2019) Publisher: Bloomsbury Format: Paperback