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.”
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.
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.
We 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.