History of the Rain was long-listed for the 2014 Booker, but it’s drawn the occasional caustic response from doubters at Good Reads. I quite enjoyed it, but I think its appeal will depend on whether or not you have a soft spot for the Irish. If you ‘hear’ it in a soft Irish lilt; if you can picture a small farm with a quaint cottage; if you ‘know’ the intimacy of an Irish village; and above all if you are familiar with the style and steely sentimentality of Irish storytelling – then this book will be a pleasure.
But if not, it may not be for you. Even if you’re the sort of reader, as I am, who enjoys allusions to the books of a lifetime’s reading.
The storyline is simple; the artifice is not. Plain Ruth Swain (yes, that is how she refers to herself, because that’s how the village does) is gravely ill with an unspecified disease in an attic bedroom. Surrounded by and constantly referring to the books which formed his library, she is writing the story of her family and the father she hardly knew. The family’s story is one of hardship and tragedy: the small holding consists of fourteen acres of the worst farming land in Ireland and the nearby River Shannon combines with the incessant rain and her father’s incompetence to make things worse. Given the title, it is hardly a surprise that History of the Rain is a very wet book. (Yes, wetter than Angela’s Ashes.)
You don’t need to be a feminist to notice that this is a male author writing in a female voice, but maybe you do to notice that for Plain Ruth Swain this story of her family is an homage to the males. Well, they are dead, tragically so, of course, and perhaps it’s more compelling to construct a story around the romance of tragic death. It is not so interesting to take much notice of Ruth’s stoic mother who plods through the book making bread and providing raincoats when they are needed. Having fallen in love with a romantic who turns out to be a poet incapable of earning a living, she clearly has no time to read a book at all.
Ruth, like her mother, has a tolerance for male frailty that will either charm you or irritate you. In Virgil (the father, the poet) the incompetence is because he is a poet. This can involve long hours standing by the river with rain streaming down his back or it may involve long hours humming in the attic, oblivious to his family including, of course, his wife. She doesn’t seem to mind, she is a saint. She understands that poets need this sort of self-absorption in order to do their thing. And the village is very proud of his (unseen, unpublished) poems too, so they are tolerant as well.
I hasten to add that I understand this self-absorption myself. Ours is a creative household, and both of us know that an interruption at the wrong moment can thrust the elusive word or perfect cadence into eternal oblivion. But few relationships survive one-sidedness – and decades of grinding poverty in the service of art usually depend on manifestations of love of some sort. Apart from Virgil’s early and risible attempts at farming (which take place before he realises he is a poet) there’s not much evidence that he loves his wife. Perhaps she intuits it.
Novels, of course, don’t have to be realistic, and the narrator is an adolescent confined to a sick bed so a testy reader has to keep reminding herself that the artifice here in this book necessarily limits her perspective. I found the first part of the book interesting, lost interest in the middle and found myself bemused by the Booker fuss, but ended up completely absorbed by the last third of it, possibly because this is where the tragic deaths are revealed and Ruth’s own demise seems imminent. If you like weeping over your novels and you like caring about the characters, you’ll probably love this. Kim at Reading Matters certainly did, see her review here – and obviously the Booker judges did too.
It is witty, it is clever, and Williams does write beautifully. Here he is writing about Virgil’s romanticised version of his sailing days for the children at bedtime:
‘And why were you there? What were you sailing there for?’ Aeney wants to understand how you can get into a map that’s on page 28 of an Atlas.
‘Why was I there?’ Dad says.
My father’s eyes are looking straight up at the slope of the ceiling and the cutaway angle where the skylight is a box of navy blue with no stars. The question is too big for him. I will see this often in the years to come, the way he could suddenly pause on a phrase or even just a word, as if in it were a doorway and his mind would enter and leave us momentarily. Back then we thought it was what all fathers did. We thought that fatherhood was this immense weight like a great overcoat and there were all manner of things your father had to be thinking of all the time just to keep the overcoat from crushing him. ‘Well,’ he says at last, ‘that’s a long story.
‘All right.’ Aeney props himself up on his elbow. One look at his face and you know you can’t disappoint him. You just can’t. Before they are broken small boys are perfect creations. (p. 172)
Williams goes on to write about the colour blue – and remember, this is a novel of interminable grey skies…
‘The Caribbean, you know, is not a place. It is many places. Islands. Some of them are so small they’re not even on that map. But all of them are beautiful. The water is this marvellous blue. It’s so blue that once you see it you realise that you’ve never seen blue before. That other thing you were calling blue is some other colour, it’s not blue. This, this is blue. It’s a blue that comes down from the sky into the water so that when you look into the sea you think sky and when you look into the sky you think sea.’
Aeney and I lie there and realise we’ve never seen blue, and how amazing it must be, and for a while I try the difficult trick of seeing what I’ve never seen except through my father’s telling. I set him sailing in the very best blue I can imagine, but know that is not blue enough. (p.174)
(Astute readers will recognise that Virgil is telling his kids about R.L. Stevenson’s Treasure Island, and that he hasn’t been anywhere a Caribbean blue either).
Here Williams is writing about the disappointed men of the village – not IMO successfully as an adolescent female narrator (despite the twee capital letters) – but very successfully as an older-and-wiser man):
It was a noted wedding in the parish memory. I think it was because Dad was still that DC Comics figure, The Stranger, and because none of the men in the parish could believe that Mam hadn’t chosen one of them. Long before the Consecration, before the head-bowing part where the Bride and Groom are up there kneeling together and there’s this sense of Something Big happening, men’s hearts were already breaking. Bits of longing and dream were cracking off and sliding away the way Feeney’s field did into the sea. Father Mooney must have felt it, this giant ache that filled his church. In the Men’s Aisle there were some with prayerbooks clasped knuckle-white, cheeks streaked with high-colouring, thin nets of violet, and their Atlantic blue eyes boring down into the red-and-black tiles hoping for an Intercession. When it didn’t come they did what men here do and by midnight had emptied the bar at the Inis Cathaigh and the emergency crates and barrels that were brought up from Crotty’s. (p.201)
History of the Rain is full of treasures like this. It’s just … it’s just that it’s not enough, not for me.
Author: Niall Williams
Title: History of the Rain
Publisher: Bloomsbury, 2014
Source: Review copy courtesy of Bloomsbury Publishing
Fishpond: History of the Rain