By Niall Williams
When the world looks like it is trying even harder this week than last to fall apart, looking for solace to be able to go back out there and do one's best is now called self-care. I call it reading. And I found another novel that provided comfort.
History of the Rain by Niall Williams is on the Man Booker longlist this year. It's the story of young Ruth, confined to her bed upstairs, trying to find her father in the books he left. It's the story of their family, going back generations on both sides, and the story of how the Irish in one small village view themselves. It's also the story of salmon and the river and how one thing always leads to another.
But more than anything, History of the Rain is a story of how love of words and poetry and reading and writing are the stuff of life itself, of our hopes and dreams and loves and sorrows.
Now, all that may sound like a downer to some of you. Channeling Ruth, I can almost see some of you rolling your eyes and clicking your tongues. Hang on though.
Introducing her father and her story, Ruth writes:
The longer my father lived in this world the more he knew there was another to come. ... he imagined that there must be a finer one where God corrected His mistakes and men and women lived in the second draft of Creation and did not know despair. My father bore a burden of impossible ambition. He wanted all things to be better than they were ...
We are our stories. We tell them to stay alive or keep alive those who may only live now in the telling.
And in the telling they live on, because, after all:
We have mixed metaphors and outlandish similes for breakfast.
She's a narrator who is old-fashioned in that I didn't have to wonder whether I could trust her or wonder whether she knew what she was talking about. Ruth is honest about herself and her memories. She also knows she misses the mark not only of her father's family Impossible Standard that controls their lives, but also the mark of what normal people not bound by an Impossible Standard know to do. As someone who also read "so many nineteenth-century novels before the age of fifteen that I became exactly too clever by half", I know it's not an Impossible Standard, but an Impossibly Strong Sense of Yearning, that can control the likes of Ruth. Among others.
Williams gives Ruth a wistful, hopeful voice, with just the right dollops of deprecation. She conveys how her father's grandfather and father grappled with the knowledge of the Impossible Standard and how, just when it appeared they were doomed to a lifetime of failure and disappointment, they found where they belonged. So did Ruth's father. He belonged with her mother.
The story of how Ruth's parents met is sweet and tinged with the realism that while things may not be great in Ireland, there is the chance for people to enjoy moments in life, look back and say it was grand.
Grand is the childhood Ruth has with her twin brother. He's the runner, the first-born, the one who never stops. He shines. She's the one who notices things. Their closeness is disrupted at school when they are forced into separate classes and he goes off with the boys. And here is where the tone of Williams's storytelling shines in that Ruth misses her brother, misses the days when they were closer to each other than anyone, but she doesn't resent her brother when he changes. She notes what other kids are cruel and how -- oh, she knows exactly how they are cruel and how they find their prey, and then continues on with what she loves.
And that's mostly words. Whether it's legend, community gossip, those 19th century novels or poetry, it's the words that make Ruth's writing down of her family's story sing:
We're a race of elsewhere people. That's what makes us the best saints and the best poets and the best musicians and the world's worse bankers.
And Ruth comes from people who stay near the river:
Beside the river there are two things you never forget, that the moment you look at a river that moment has already passed, and that everything is on its way somewhere else.
Through Ruth, Williams expresses the kind of witty commentary that only those who love books as their friends can do, whether it's Great Expectations, Stevenson (who is called RLS throughout the novel as one would nickname a friend), Melville, Middlemarch, dear Jane of course, Flannery and Dickens and oh where would we be without Yeats. And the physical qualities of books are lovingly noted as well:
... the book bulges, basically the smell of complex humanity, sort of sweat and salt and endeavour. Like all the fat orange Penguins, it gets fatter with reading, which it should, because in a way the more you read it the bigger your own experience of the world gets, the fatter your soul. Try it, you'll see.
Yes! That's it!
The secret of writing also is provided, and it's basically this: Sit in the chair. Also, know that writing is a sickness. And the only cure is to write.
Williams writes of the love of the river, the love of the words and the love of parents for their children and of children for their parents. The version he gives Ruth of Joan Didion's famous "we tell ourselves stories in order to live" is this:
We tell stories. We tell stories to pass the time, to leave the world for a while, or go more deeply into it. We tell stories to heal the pain of living.
And Williams also tells the story of Ruth and her family to tell of how they loved each other.
In these days, that is powerful solace.
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