Once Upon a Time in Ireland

By Niall Williams

“One of the unwritten tenets of the local poetics was that a story must never arrive at a point, or risk conclusion,” says Noel Crowe, known as Noe, in the Irish writer Niall Williams’s latest novel. “And because in Faha … time was the only thing people could afford, all stories were long, all storytellers took their, and your, and anyone else’s, time, and all gave it up willingly, understanding that tales of anything as aberrant and contrary as human behavior had to be so long that they wouldn’t, and in fact couldn’t, be finished this side of the grave, and only for the fire going out and the birds of dawn singing might be continuing still.”

While this passage is about Noe’s grandfather’s oral storytelling practices, it also serves as an apt description of “This Is Happiness.” Williams has painted a lush, wandering portrait of Faha, a village back in time in County Clare, Ireland, a place also featured in his previous novel, “History of the Rain,” which was longlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize. “History of the Rain” is powerfully narrated by a young, bedridden woman who tells stories of her dead father’s life while devouring the books in his library. In this new work, the narrator, Noe, is a 78-year-old man looking back roughly 60 years to the spring of 1958, when he dropped out of the seminary after his mother’s death and, full of fear and unprocessed grief, went to live with his grandparents in Faha, where he’d spent time as a child. “This Is Happiness” is as full of detours and backward glances as it is of forward motion and — as befits a novel narrated by an old man who comments that “as you get toward the end, you revisit the beginning” — is centrally preoccupied with time itself.

Faha, as we encounter it in 1958, is a “forgotten elsewhere,” a place where “everything has to be invented firsthand and all needs met locally.” The tour Noe gives us of the town is full of pleasures: a digression on traveling encyclopedia salesmen; illuminating, often comic descriptions of the social intricacies of church and pub culture; the chemist’s shop with its “once flood-swollen and now lifted-in-places linoleum.” Even the cows get some gorgeous lines: “In the fields the cattle, made slow-witted by the rain, lifted their rapt and empty faces, heavy loops of spittle hanging, as though they ate watery light.”

At times, the novel reads almost like an ethnographic study of a village on the cusp of change, calling to mind John Berger’s wonderful fictional trilogy “Into Their Labors,” set in the French Alps on the eve of industrialization. At the start of the novel, there’s only one phone outside the village limits, and it’s in Noe’s grandparents’ home. His grandmother ritualistically prepares stationery and blotting paper to write letters to relations from County Kerry to America. The book is full of both cheerful and fatalistic waiting, whether in line at church or for a letter to arrive or for the rain to stop (or start again). As 21st-century readers, we are invited to lower ourselves into a slower kind of time; we regularly leave the central characters frozen in mid-speech to take a peek at something else.

What through-lines do emerge involve three intersecting plots: the Rural Electrification Scheme’s bringing of electricity to the town; the arrival of a stranger, Christy McMahon, who hopes to right a wrong from his past; and the awakening of Noe’s romantic desires, as played out through his hopeless crushes on all three daughters of the local doctor. We witness the brittle frailties and dogged strengths of Noe and Christy, men at very different stages of their lives who nevertheless have each other’s backs.

Where the book’s digressions sometimes bog down are in its more self-reflective moments: Noe the storyteller defending himself against charges (but whose?) of sentimentality and holding forth on the relationship between story and truth, the real and the imagined, and the enriching merits of the arts. Disarmingly, Noe is aware of his own flaws, telling us he was nicknamed “Know-All” as a child. “Oh, just shut up and take me back to Faha,” I wanted to interject at times. But I couldn’t and wouldn’t; he’s too sweet a fellow, not to mention my elder (and a fictional character). Be kind, he admonishes the reader directly at one point, and it’s a testament to this bighearted novel that I felt duly chastened, almost like a member of the clan.

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