History of the Rain, by Niall Williams

by

We are our stories. We tell them to stay alive or keep alive those who only live now in the telling. That’s how it seems to me, being alive for a little while, the teller and the told.

Purchased at the Book Depository

Purchased at the Book Depository

Ruth Swain pens that credo on the opening page of her personal opus which will become History of the Rain. By age 15, the precocious Ruth was a “sufferer of Smart Girl Syndrome” (Ruth uses a lot of capital letters, as her writing coach notes). But when she headed to Trinity College, she collapsed and came home again: “I have had Something Amiss, Something Puzzling, and We’re Not Sure Yet.”

So Ruth is confined to her bedroom in the attic of the Swain family cottage in Faha, Ireland, in search of something to do. Her room has two distinguishing features — two skylights that let her track the rain (and occasional welcome sun) and 3,958 books (carefully catalogued by her father who collected them) in tottering stacks that virtually surround her. It is those books that inspire her project to tell the Swain family story.

Mainly, she wants to recount the story of her father’s life, but to do that she needs to go back as far as her great-grandfather, the Reverend Absalom Swain of Salisbury, Wiltshire, who created the foundation axiom of the Swain family:

What the Reverend bequeaths to our story is the Swain Philosophy of Impossible Standard. In the year eighteen hundred and ninety-five he leaves it to his son at the christening, dipping the boy into the large cold name Abraham, and stepping back from the wailing, jutting the jaw. He wants his son to aspire. He wants him to outreach the ordinary and be a proof to God of the excellence of His Creation. That is how I think of it. The basis of the Philosophy of Impossible Standard is that no matter how hard you try you can’t ever be good enough. The Standard raises as you do. You have to keep polishing your soul ahead of Entering the Presence. Something like that.

booker logoWe will learn more about the Reverend (including his affection for the Pole-vault — “firing himself into the sky”), but that is probably indicator enough for review purposes. The Reverend sends Abraham off to Oxford to read the classics and Prepare for Life, which pretty much comes down to “waiting to get The Call”. A Call does come, but it is not from the Almighty — rather it is the arrival of the Great War and Abraham’s decision to enlist.

Abraham’s war does not last long. He is seriously wounded on his very first offensive, before he has even fired a shot. His life is saved first by a sympathetic German soldier who applies a tourniquet rather than finishing him off with a bayonet — and then by a young English doctor, Oliver Cissley, who “has come to war to save lives”.

Abraham will spend the rest of the war in a home for injured soldiers and Cissley will die in it — but saving Abraham’s life has left a mark that will stretch on. The doctor’s mother visits Abraham in the home and shares with him her son’s letters and his pride in saving Abraham. The Cissley family has done well out of the war (they manufactured “two million Mills grenade bombs”) and wants to give Abraham a house and lands in Ireland that they own in memory of their son.

Ireland (well, at least the Ireland of fiction) is notorious for having land that is hostile to farming and the plot that Abraham Swain is given is even more resistant to cultivation than most. While he struggles along for some years, slowly but surely he develops an obsession with salmon fishing. He records every catch he makes in succeeding decades and eventually produces a book, The Salmon in Ireland, with “Seventy-eight Illustrations from Photographs and Two Maps” — the novel features a number of excerpts.

Ruth’s father, Virgil, has no better luck farming the plot than his own father did and, like Abraham, develops his own obsession (hopeless obsessions are an essential of the Swain Philosophy of Impossible Standard). It starts with collecting and reading books (those 3,958 volumes that are Ruth’s constant companions) and evolves into endlessly writing poetry. He never actually gets any poetry published, but the people of Faha do regard him as the town laureate.

There is a fourth generation of male Swains present as well in the History of the Rain, Ruth’s twin brother, Aeney. She tells us early on that he is no longer with us — she takes a fair while to tell the story of his death.

That family history is the superstructure of this book, but it would be wrong to imply that that is all there is to it. Ruth’s manuscript is as much written contemporary oral history as it is historical story — each chapter opens in the here-and-now with incidents from her own confined life, be it the visit of townsfolk, domestic crises or the latest on her mother’s mother, the ninety-seven-year old Nan (or is she ninety-nine?) who continues to rule the Swain cottage from her seat by the fire.

Indeed, it is those contemporary thoughts that supply History of the Rain with one of its most distinctive features. Ruth is a product of all those ancient books she has read (Dickens is a particular favorite) and her prose when she is writing about her ancestors reflects that — to the reader, for the most part it feels as through the book was written many decades ago. And then, out of the blue, there come references to Facebook or the latest economic collapse and we are abruptly reminded that Ruth’s chronicle is very much being written in the present by a 20-year-old girl.

All of this made for a pleasant enough read. While this is the first Niall Williams I have read, it is his ninth novel — and, as I have come to expect from Irish authors, he certainly knows how to use the language. As the novel went on, I came to quite like and appreciate Ruth — her pictures of the male generations of the family were not quite as well developed but they too become real-enough characters.

The problem is that History of the Rain is what I call an “Irish village” novel and that sub-genre has some challenges of its own. “Irish village” novels do acknowledge that there are global issues at play (be it a famine, the Great War, the Troubles or the latest economic collapse) but those are so remote and beyond the influence of the book’s characters that they are just “there”. Of far greater consequence are the localized, personal issues (such as Ruth’s illness or Nan’s latest problems) that do genuinely impact on day-to-day life. Alas, there is an inherent limitation in focussing on the “small” while only acknowledging the “large” — and it takes some special skill to make it memorable.

All of which means that while I found History of the Rain to be an entirely worthwhile read, this fan of “Irish village” novels would have to admit that it did not measure up to the best in the genre. I would point to John McGahern’s That They May Face The Rising Sun, John Borderick’s The Pilgrimage and even Donal Ryan’s The Spinning Heart (which was Booker longlisted last year) as better examples of the sub-genre. (And Colm Toibin has more than one that would be worthy of including on that short list.)

Don’t let that put you off History of the Rain — but if you don’t yet have your own list of “Irish village” favorites and want to expand it, there are better places to start than this one.

8 Responses to “History of the Rain, by Niall Williams”

  1. james b chester Says:

    Interesting review. I like this idea of the “Irish Village” genre. I think it could be just “Village” since so many different groups do essentially the same thing. I think you could read Larry McMurtry’s wonderful novel “The Last Picture Show” as a Texas Village novel, for example.

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  2. heather curran Says:

    Hey Kevin, when I think of “village novel” I think “quaint”. I wonder if that is what you were going for. Although Mr. Chester’s referring to The Last Picture Show as Texas village novel is wonderful. This was my first Niall William’s novel too and it will be my last. The premise appealed but the writing (in my view) was far too earnest, with (to me) really pretentious flowery prose. I loved your review Kevin, but as a fellow Canadian shed a small tear over your spelling of “favourite” in your kind response to Mr. Chester (sob)!

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    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I would opt for “contained” rather than “quaint”, but that’s a relatively minor distinction. I did find much of Ruth’s writing “flowery” but I put that down to the fact that her understanding of formal written language come from reading classic fiction — her reports from the contemporary world are not very flowery at all. And while I liked the novel, I can’t quarrel with those who find it “too earnest”.

      Sorry about the “-or/-our” diversion, I guess I’d argue that part of being Canadian is the freedom to chose between American and U.K. spellings when they offer alternatives. I’m afraid that I have always been of the “-or” school, although I hold to “-re” over “-er” when that choice is available. šŸ™‚

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  3. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Some of the Irish village novels you list at the end are ones I haven’t read yet, and Toibin apparently has a new novel coming out, so I’m not sure I have need for another such.

    Also, the fact her writing tutor flags the use of capitals makes it No Less Annoying.

    It also all sounds a little contrived. I’m not always a fan of naturalism as you probably know, but for Irish village fiction I think there’s a lot to be said for a fairly realistic approach.

    Glad to have the reminders re the Broderick and the McGahern though (The Spinning Heart I seem to get reminded of quite often, but I seem to recall seeing that it has a murder subplot which I find rather offputting).

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  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    “Contrived” is quite fair comment, although I found Ruth interesting enough that I was willing to let her have that (and the Capital Letters, which do ease off as the novel progresses). I’d say Williams needs that to set up some of his humor, which is a very pleasant side to the novel that I have underplayed in my review.

    Having said that, this is definitely a Second or even Third Cru, compared to the Premiers that I touched on.

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  5. Caz Says:

    I warmed quickly to this quirky prose – dry wit, sideways humour, whimsical writing. I nodded at the early hints of what was to come, and sat back to enjoy the journey.

    Except there really wasn’t one, and it all got a little dull – it’s basically a tale of how the authors parents met, their lovable quirks, and a few deaths – which are hinted at well in advance, many times. The writing, whilst cute,loses it’s charm a few chapters in and a new trick never really comes.

    I grew bored and I had to motivate myself to finish, as opposed to those books that seize you and hold you hostage. I’ve loved other “uneventful” books (hello Benediction) so maybe it’s where I was personally when I read this – if I’d read it over a slow summer, I may have been more appreciative of pace.

    I do think it’s a book many will appreciate but it’s not a good fit with me.

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    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I don’t think your response is an uncommon one with this book. As good as the writing is, the novel has an odd rhythm (and no real plot) to it and if you don’t fall into step with that rhythm it is easy to understand why the book doesn’t work.

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