Books appeal to me in a variety of different ways.
Some are intellectually challenging; some have intricate or gripping plots; some tug on the heart strings; some create whole worlds inside me; some create characters who live on inside my mind and imagination.
And some sing to me. They breathe under my fingers. They live.
And this was one book that did exactly that.
What is this book about?
A young woman, Ruth Swain, little more than a girl, is ill in bed. Surrounded by several thousand of her father’s books in which she hopes to find him, most of which are names, referenced and catalogued throughout the novel.
That’s pretty much it really in terms of plot! Oh, and she goes to hospital a couple of times. And it rains.
But, as she’s in bed, she narrates the tale of four generations of her family, interweaving this historical saga with her own personal story: yes, the image of the river is a massively significant one in the novel and, as Ruth herself says, her story meanders and potters delving from deep pasts to presents and back again. Compared to Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, which, of course, won last year’s Man Booker, with its very strict structure to the point of near rigidity, this is a breath of fresh air. The fluidity of the narrative(s) creates a beautiful dance between past and present and it is one of the few books I have read where you really do feel that time is not linear but the events of the past are just as much in the present – in our memories, feelings, in the way it shapes us – as the things occurring before our eyes are.
There is so much to commend this book that it is hard to know where to start.
Firstly, it is hilarious! The novel abounds with literary allusions both explicit and implicit some of which I got and many of which I am sure flew over my head. Characters in the novel are repeatedly compared to characters in other novels. Beyond that, however, there are moments of pure comedy: the kidnapping of baby Jesus from the school nativity was genuinely laugh-out-loud; the fractious and competitive marriage of Abraham and Margaret which consisted of “silent skirmishes… moving a chair back where he wanted it, leaving open a newspaper he knew she wanted folded away, opening windows she closed” . As Ruth tells us
But in those days once you were wedded you were in Holy Deadlock, and in Ireland the priests had decided that once a man entered a woman there was No Way Out. The vagina was this deadly mysterious wrestler that could get you in a headlock, well, metaphorically speaking, and then boys, you were rightly stuck.
That Will teach You was Number One sermon at the time.
It is a gloriously and joyfully silly, surreal, self-aware, punning social commentary that sums up their marriage, gender relations and a whole range of sociological and religious dogmas. Part of my mind rebels and wants to complain that this generalises and overstates the concerns and is probably not historically accurate. I don’t know enough about Ireland and Catholicism to say. But it is joyous!
Poor Mrs P had the dubious benefit of hearing my reading certain extracts – baby Jesus being one – to her and seemed to find them funny even without the full context.
Alongside the comedy, however, there is incredible tragedy. I’ll avoid giving away spoilers but the Swains set themselves up as a family to whom misfortune, failure and tragedy are familiar. Williams often undermines the failures with comedy. The family has declared itself to suffer from the Philosophy of Impossible Standard bequeathed by Ruth’s great-grandfather The Reverend Absalom Swain and enshrined in the names of her grandfather, Abraham, and father, Virgil.
For example, Virgil Swain, father to our narrator, falls into farming through his marriage and lack of other option and planted potatoes contrary to the local advice and didn’t spray them against blight. The crop failed and Ruth Swain tells us that the following year
… he tried potatoes again.
This time he sprayed.
This time there was no blight.
This time the river worms destroyed them.
Williams continues however with a second account of the same failure from Mary, Ruth’s mother:
Those potatoes were all right, Mam said, when she told it. Aeney and I were maybe ten. All of us were at the table. A large bowl of floury potatoes had summoned the story.
“The way I remember it, those potatoes were all right,” she said. She looked closely at one she held upright on her fork. “If you cut around the worms.”
I screamed and Aeney ughed and Mam laughed and Dad smiled looking at her and letting the story heal….
Somehow the worm-ruined potatoes had become this happiness, somehow the years-ago-hurt had transformed, and I think maybe I had a first sense then of the power of story, and realised that time had done what Time sometimes does to hardship, turn it to fairy tale.
There was, however, a heartaching inevitability to the central core tragedy which unfolds in the novel: most readers will be able to see it coming from a distance but I won’t make it explicit. For two nights this week, when I was towards the end of this book, I set it aside because I knew what would have to be described in the final 50 pages and I needed to steel myself for it and screw my courage to the sticking point. That doesn’t happen with many books!
Gender is interesting here too. Sorry, this is just a little digression but Niall Williams has chosen as a man to write in the voice of a female character, despite the fact that she had a male twin whose voice he could have used. The first half of the novel felt very masculine: Absalom and Abraham Swain held sway both in their households and in the narrative. Virgil himself is an almost silent character: he is seen through his actions and the prism of other people. Once his narrative commences, female characters start to come to the fore: Nan, Mary, Ruth herself, even Mrs Quinty. Just an observation.
This is a book that – as stated before – is steeped in literature. It is also written in a particularly beautiful and lyrical way, wonderfully balancing the natural realism of Ruth’s narrative voice with the lyricism of poetry. The world around Ruth lives and breathes and moves exquisitely
The River Shannon passes below our house on its journey to the sea.
Come here Ruthie, feel the pulse of the water, my father said, kneeling on the bank and dipping his hand, palm to current, then reaching out to take my hand in his. He put our arm into the cold river and at once it was pulled seaward like an oar. I was seven years old. I had a blue dress for summertime.
Here, Ruthie, feel.
His sleeve darkened and he rowed our arm back and let us be taken again, a little eddy of low sounds gargling as the throat of the river laughed realising what a peculiar thing was a father and his daughter.
How beautiful is that?!
The tenderness of the relationship between father and daughter. Look, look at the use of the phrase “our arm” as if the two people were one. Feel the immense imaginative symbolic and mythic power of the river water tugging “seaward”: a metaphor for life, for story telling? Hear the onomatopoeia; see the personification. That river is as much a character as either of the human beings reaching into it, isn’t it?
And that quote is from just the second page of over 300.
The book’s ending is also exquisitely balanced – and the pinnacle of the lyricism of the novel. The final pages are some of the most gorgeous writing that you are likely to find. It is, i think, impossible to give spoilers because there is no ending to spoil: Ruth is in hospital for some form of investigation and is aware that she may not be strong enough to recover – details of Ruth’s illness are left deliberately blank throughout and she explicitly tells us she does not want her story to be weighed down with science instead relying on euphemisms like having Something Amiss, Something Puzzling, being Fine except for Falling Down – and she is “taken down” as the novel closes.
Niall Williams has very consciously – I think – not given any suggestion whether she is ever brought back up again. How much self control must that have taken!
But how much better is that act of silence than either a Disney Happy Ending or a clumsy attempt – presumably by another narrative voice – to explain how she died. The reader, instead, is left waiting for news.
If you read, you will love this book. If you write, you will love this book. If you believe that we as people are as much a creation of imagination as we are of genetics, you will love this book. If you believe that stories matter, you will love this book.
So, go forth and read this book!
Stop wasting time reading reviews of it: go out and but it, download it, borrow it.
And love it.