Niall Williams, History of the Rain

August 24, 2014 § Leave a comment

I know what that’s like too, when the last thing you feel is the pinch in your arm and this might hurt just a little and you’re off into the wherever depending on the length and breadth of your imagination.  My father has a whole section of his library just for this.  Here’s Thomas Traherne (1637-74), poet, mystic, entering Paradise (Book 1,569, The Faber Book of Utopias, John Carey, Faber & Faber, London):  “The corn was orient and immortal wheat which never should be reaped nor was ever sown…the dust and stones of the street were as precious as gold.  The Gates were at first the end of the world.  The green trees, when I saw them first through the gates, transported and ravished me… The men!  O what venerable and reverend creatures did the aged seem!  Immortal Cherubims!  And the young men glittering and sparkling angels; and maids, strange and seraphic pieces of life and beauty!  Boys and girls tumbling in the street and playing were moving jewels.’

Paradise has actual gates? (pp. 31-32)

Forget Marx’s observation that religion was the opiate of the masses.  For bibliophiles, the act of reading serves as a pallative, giving voice to our pains and providing, sometimes, a numbing agent for those pinpricks of the soul.  In Niall Williams’ 2014 Man Booker Prize-longlisted novel, History of the Rain, he explores the ways in which literature, both composed and collected, can communicate those awful little family secrets that mere conversations fail to do.  It is an interesting approach to the staid family history genre, albeit one that depends in part upon the reader’s familiarity with the books referenced.

Nineteen-year-old Ruthie Swain is an invalid, confined now to her family’s County Clare home, replete with thatched roof and lack of certain modern amenities.  Desperate to understand her family’s history, especially that of her late father, a poet, Ruthie turns to his vast library of books in a search to understand not just the man her father was, but just how these thousands of volumes shaped him.  As she reads and narrates her thoughts on her family and their literary influences, the diary-like tone of certain passages gives way to amusing anecdotes grounded in the literature she is perusing:

That’s how I see it anyway.  That’s how I see it when I ask Mam ‘How did you first meet Dad?’ and each time she tells me the story of Not Meeting, of Passing by, and how it seems to me God was giving them every chance not to meet, and the singular nature of their characters will mean their stories will run parallel and never do a Flannery O’Connor.  Never converge. (p. 180)

Over the course of a few hundred pages, Ruthie discusses the known facts of her parents’ lives, of her father’s existence as a failed poet and even worse farmer; of her mother’s exasperation in dealing with him; of the impossibly high standards that her father, Virgil, holds himself to; of how her twin brother Aeney drowns and how that affected her father and his attempts to write publishable poetry.  But most importantly, there is within the family notes and the scribbled margins of her father’s books a reference to a poem, “History of the Rain,” that might hold clues to understanding just how Ruthie’s father came to be the enigma that he was for her.

Williams rarely tells the Swain family’s history in linear fashion.  Instead, he favors a more elliptical approach, in which the volumes that Ruthie mentions contains clues to not just what happened in her parents’ lives and why they were reluctant to share those moments with her, but also why her father tried his level best to become a poet.  This quest to understand familial past is not original, far from it, but Williams’ use of literary references to a wide range of authors spanning the globe imbues the narrative with a secondary layer that enlivens it, making it feel fresher for its more universal approach to discussing the personal.

However, there are times where the dependence upon the literary perhaps goes too deep into the well.  Ruthie’s copious references to literary works at times felt a bit too much, as though she were not a fully-fleshed human but instead a literary quote generator that could spout a phrase suitable for any and all emotional moods.  However, these moments thankfully are few in number and on the whole, Williams manages to integrate well the personal family history narrative with the use of literary references as a means of exploring the human condition.  As the narrative unfolds, Ruthie arrives at the conclusion that there is a price to becoming different from others, a toll exacted for those poetic souls who seek to go so deep into this earth that they are transformed by this search for understanding.  It is perhaps a little trite, but in light of the journey that Ruthie has narrated, it is a fitting one.  History of the Rain works best if viewed as a bibliophile’s relation of human thought to the real world, connecting our sorrows with those narrated by others.  It may not be a perfect novel, but it is a very human tale, one that I enjoyed reading.

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