This is Happiness by Niall Williams

This is a book of ineffable beauty; its prose so poetically written that it is like a slow chant of a tale, one of tenderness and love. It is a book I read slowly, and went back time again to reread a passage, as Williams is an artist who can create a mood, a picture, a scene, with a few beautifully coupled words.

happiness

The story is set in Faha, a small Irish parish in Kerry, in the early 1970s. Not much has changed in Faha for hundreds of years. Yet, just as Father Coffey announces that electricity is coming to the village, the almost incessant rain stops – quite unbelievably  – and Faha slowly moves into a time of change, and into a season of sunny, hot weather.

The story is told by Noel (Noe) Crawley, looking back on his life to when he was seventeen and come to live in Faha with his grandparents, Ganga and Doady. After his mother had dies, Noe had retreated to a seminary school, yet left it when he awoke one night with ‘… the fear that I might not discover what it meant to live a fully human life.’.

Life is slow and somewhat aimless for Noe in Faha until Christy, a man in his 60s, arrives as a lodger in his grandparents’ house. Christy has nominally come to the village as an ‘electric man’, yet through sharing a bedroom, going to pubs in the evening in search of an elusive musician (Noe getting drunk for the first time), riding home on bicycles in the dark, Noe discovers that Christy has come to Faha to right wrongs he has caused in the past, and to find the woman he had jilted.

Faha

Taken by the romance of this, Noe tries intervening on Christy’s behalf, a move that is unsuccessful and, when he realises that Christy is not going to confront the love of his life, Noe wants to know why. He is frustrated by the lack of urgency in Christy; Noe himself has fallen in love with the doctor’s daughter and thinks about her obsessively, unhappy until he catches even just a glimpse of her. Christy replies, ‘Noe … this, this is happiness’. Not understanding initially, Noe as the older writer, says on reflection, ‘… I came to understand him to mean that you could stop at, not all, but most of the moments in your life, stop for one heartbeat and, no matter what the state of your mind or heart, say This is happiness, because of the simple truth that you were alive to say it.’

Nothing happens fast in Faha, nor in the novel, but this works for Noe’s slow coming-of-age journey, as he progresses from naivety to a deeper understanding of life and of the nuances of love. At the odd moment, I thought Williams was going to veer into sentimentality, yet his skilfulness and experience as a story teller prevented that from happening. Of William’s talents, one lies in describing the characters of the village with humour and respect, and the simple rhythms of its life. His other greater talent is his understanding and portrayal of various forms of love – starting with that between Noe’s grandfather and grandmother:

“My grandmother … understood the tightrope balance they had sustained for nearly half a century, a topsy-turvy way of living they had made up on the model of their own parents and grandparents … What Doady knew, without saying a word, was that, within the one-foot-after-the-other confines of that tightrope, they were free.”   

Williams shows us, too, the passion of teenage love and its obsessional state, but also the intimacy of friendship, as shown by the unlikely one between Christy and Noe, and by the sadness Noe experiences when Christy leaves.

At the end of the novel, the electricity is turned on in Faha – a momentous event to which all the villagers have thronged, with holy water blessed by the Bishop being thrown at the wooden pole before the electricity is switched on. Thinking back to his younger self, standing there among the people, and and next to Doady and Ganga, Noe comments:

… At that moment I understood that this in miniature was the world, a connective of human feeling, for the most part by far pulsing with the dream of the betterment of the other, and in this was an invisible current that … was all the time being restored and switched back on and was running not because of past or future times but because, at all times since beginning and to the end, the signal was still on, still pulsing, and still trying to love.’

This is a slow, gentle book –  don’t read it if you like a fast-paced story with a tight plot; read it rather if you are looking for beauty in the written word, and love and humour embedded in its sentences.

Williams
Niall Williams

Birdseye by Maire Fisher

This is Maire Fisher’s first novel and I have been waiting for it for ten years. I know Maire, you see, and have watched her mold her writing in those brief moments she has managed to snatch out of her busy life. Although she is a friend of mine, I must assure you that I am not just giving this a positive review because of the friendship. This is truly a very readable, likeable novel that I would have read in one sitting if I had had the time.

Birdseye coverThe main character is Bird, the youngest of five children in a family that lives in an old mansion (called Marchbanks) on the cliffs above a Cape Town seaside town. On the top floor of the house lives Ma Bess, Bird’s grandmother, who never comes downstairs yet rules Marchbanks from above. She is a nasty old tyrant, reminiscent of Miss Havisham, who is beastly to all and sundry who venture into her dark bedroom. The children know all about their parents lives and love hearing about how their father wooed their mother, yet they know nothing about Ma Bess and why she lives a reclusive life.

Soon after the book starts, Bird’s 10-year-old twin brothers go missing and, in her refusal to believe that her brothers have gone forever, Bird starts a diary in which she tells her brothers what’s going on in the family so they don’t miss out it. This literary device can go horribly wrong and become tedious, but in this novel it works well and becomes a credible source through which we learn about the family – Bird has an all-seeing eye that reveals the humour, vulnerabilities and ultimately the truths about this complicated family. Maire Fisher

One of the things that I liked about this novel is that Fisher never shies away from the nasty side of life. It would be easy for her to gloss over the boys’ disappearance and to bring them back to the family for a happy ending, but she doesn’t. This gives a balance to the story and makes it more like life – filled with humour, pathos, tragedy, love and loss.

What makes this novel so delightful is, not only is it set in Cape Town, but it has a wonderfully authentic young narrator who brings a freshness to the prose. Writing from a child’s point of view is never easy – bringing in the naivety, vulnerability and honesty of a young character – and sometimes authors get it wrong, but Fisher maintains the girl’s voice throughout and by the end of the book, I wished I could hear more from her.