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.

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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.

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Niall Williams

The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander

Oh, this is the most beautiful memoir; a love story, a love letter, by a woman about a man she loved for 16 years. I devoured this book, awed by the joyous love that Elizabeth Alexander held for her husband who dropped dead unexpectedly of a heart attack. While reading it, I wondered at her skill of writing about deeply personal grief in such an accessible, tender manner, and the honesty with which she portrayed the difficulties of trying to find meaning in her new world without him. It was also heart-warming to read a book about a real love, in a time when the world is full of divorce and bitterness.

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Elizabeth Alexander is an award-winning poet (probably best known for writing and reading the poem, Praise Song for the Day, at Obama’s inauguration), who presently is a professor of poetry at Yale University. She had never written a book of prose before this one and certainly never planned to write a memoir – ‘my own sense of privacy was too powerful’ –  but when she sat down and started to write, she found she couldn’t stop.

Alexander tells the story of her and her husband’s 16-year relationship from beginning to end, jumping backwards and forwards, uncovering the layers of affection from its rapturous beginning to its tragic end. She met Ficre Ghebreyesus  (FEE-kray Geb-reh-YESS-oos) in New Haven in 1996 – ‘Our love began in an instant and progressed inevitably’ – and soon they married and had two sons.

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Ficre Ghebreyesus

Ficre was born in East Africa in Asmara, Eritrea’s capital, in the middle of the 30-year-long war with Ethiopia for independence. His parents had to face down soldiers who barged into their house, threatening them with death. Ficre’s eldest brother died while fighting as a ‘freedom fighter’, but when Ficre enlisted, his mother went to retrieve him from the front line, and arranged for him leave the country as a refugee. At 16, he left home and went Sudan, then Italy, then Germany and finally made America his home. Ficre was an artist and a chef and, as well as working on his art, he opened a well-known Eritrean restaurant in New Haven. His paintings are bright and colourful, deeply influenced by the Eritrean culture, and born out of the psychological trauma he experienced there (the book’s cover portrays one of his artworks).

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One of Ficre’s paintings

Alexander describes Ficre with such loving description throughout the book; for example:

His voice lilted across a pentatonic scale. “How are you?” D-sharp, C, G-sharp. There was chocolate in his voice, a depth, a bottom…In this still life I have forgotten to say, he was beautiful, and utterly without vanity.

And:

He shaved his head on account of his receding hairline, but surely no one ever looked more beautiful bald – brown like a chestnut, clear brown, like topaz or buckwheat honey.

In her writing, he comes across as a joyful, funny, kind man, with family all around America and back in Eritrea, into whose clan Alexander was gladly received. She embraced his Eritrean traditions and cooking with fervour, and much of the book covers the merging of their cultures, an experiment that happily worked. The glimpse into the Eritrean life, with its Italian and Ethiopian influences, gave another level of interest to the book.

Ficre died aged 50 while running on the treadmill in the basement of their house, soon after Alexander had come home from a reading. She tried CPR on him, but he died before getting to the hospital. She said:

“Ficre breathed his last breath into me when I opened his mouth and breathed everything I had into him. He felt like a living person then. I am certain his soul was there.”

The memoir covers the depth of her grief at her sudden loss, her disbelief that Ficre could no longer be in her life. After his death, she dreamed of him constantly and often felt his presence; she and the children talked about him constantly, remembering small details. The first poem she wrote many months after his death is titled Family in 3/4 Time, which starts like this:

We are now a three-legged table/a family of three, once a family of four./We bring ourselves into new balance./The table wobbles, but does not fall.

The Light of the World is a memoir that portrays the depth of Alexander’s loss and grieving, and the ways in which she had to learn to be in the world without her husband, but most of all it is a beautiful tribute to a man deeply loved by those who knew him.

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Elizabeth, Ficre and their sons

http://www.ficre-ghebreyesus.com/about/

 

Ten Things I’ve Learnt About Love by Sarah Butler

This subtle debut novel has a central theme of love and loss within relationships and it told from the point of view of two characters, Alice and Daniel.

ImageAlice – a wanderer, a backpacker – returns from Mongolia to spend time with her father who is dying of cancer. Her older sisters, Tilly and Cee, are also in the house, and instantly the sibling’s dynamics start up again – Tilly is sympathetic and warm towards Alice and bakes when stressed, while Cee – a compulsive list-maker – criticises and nags her. Alice has always sensed that their father has shared a secret with her sisters that she doesn’t know about, felt a twinge of exclusion, but also a sense of being protected from that secret. Their mother died when Alice was young, when picking Alice up from her ballet lessons, an event about which Alice has carried guilt for many years. She still yearns for her ex-boyfriend with whom she broke up because he wouldn’t tell his parents about her (I want Kal. I want him to massage the soles of my feet and paint my nails.)

ImageDaniel is a homeless man, a vagrant who searches London for the daughter he has never met, the result of a year-long affair with a married woman. A synaesthete, he sees colours in letters and numbers (‘the letter A is the colour of glacier water…L is gold…I is magenta pink) and creates artistic ‘messages’ out of discarded junk which he leaves on street corners and fences for his daughter. Every year he makes a birthday card for her and posts it, fantasising that she’ll receive it (‘I write your name – I have that at least – but I don’t have an address).

Both characters are compulsive list-makers, always of ten items – this device allows for information to be conveyed to the reader in a quick, easy way, although I sometimes felt it disrupted the flow of the narrative. 

The outcome is fairly obvious, but the book never descends into sentimentality and concludes in an open-ended fashion that remains open to interpretation by the reader. 

A friend of mine found the book disappointing after the reviews she had read about it, but I enjoyed it. It is written with pathos and humour and I sympathised with both characters throughout the book.