Month: January 2018

READING:  Niall Williams’s, History of the Rain

READING: Niall Williams’s, History of the Rain

We yearn. The best of us do anyway and we struggle. Most often the struggle is carried on inside our minds as we attempt to bound and then rebound off walls we’ve built ourselves from beliefs we’ve had or adopted from…..goodness knows where. And this could be seen as futile and perhaps wisely so, if it were not for there being something noble, something best called human in the most fragile sense of the word, in the yearning and the struggling. It is the fact that we may not succeed which is the thing. We teeter on this knife’s edge, windmilling our arms this way and that for balance. We may come from a long line of teeterers and bounders. We might be like Ruth Swain in Niall Williams novel, History of the Rain.

“I am plain Ruth Swain, bed-bound, here, attic room beneath the rain, in the margin, where the narrator should be, between this world and the next.”

She believes she is placed well enough as an invalid to tell the story of her father Virgil Swain. To do so she must go back to Virgil’s father, Abraham, and back further still to his father, the Reverend Absalom Swain, whom she attributes the Swain philosophy of the 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.”

In this, our author, Niall Williams, has done more than one excellent thing. There are the rhythms and fragments, so very close to poetry and then there’s the dipping of the child in such a name, an impossible standard to be passed on again to subsequent Swains. And all of this Williams feeds to us via the character of a young girl. This is a beautiful story, lyrically told. Maybe it is wrong to point out that our author is Irish and this is an Irish tale and hence, the poetry in it. Perhaps it’s not.

The story takes place in the small parish of Faha, County Clare, and our bedridden Ruth walks us through town often enough.

“That figure ahead of you is Eamon Egan, fattest man in the parish and proud of it, wouldn’t walk the length of himself, Nan says.”

But back to Swains, Virgil’s sisters included:

“We suck small hard-boiled stones of disappointment in everything. The Swain face is narrow and, in the case of my aunts, seems to chew it’s own cheeks.”

This book is laugh-out-loud funny. I could tell you a couple of tales about Virgil’s attempts at farming after a life on boats at sea, but I really, really don’t want to spoil it for you.

There is tragedy too though. The Swains accrue their fair share and then some and there is that Impossible Standard to thwart, but even their wallowing is done with a certain poetry. This is not to say that the author shirks his duty. While Ruth takes us from the present into the near past and deeper still, her undefined illness is everpresent. At times I want her rest, save her strength for that trip to Dublin for treatment. But she continues on.

Of her father, more poet than farmer, she says:

“I suppose large dreams sailed their galleons into his brain and he had that kind of brain where strange is just normal in a bit of a storm.”

I knew how much Ruth loved him then.

And of characters, if I’ve liked one better than I do this storyteller, I cannot remember. I know I run the risk of telling you that with each book, but it is true. Williams’s novel is both grand and small. The tales Ruth tells are like poetry in their rythyms and a grand canvas in their imagery, like life itself, in fact. Life is as present in the sisters’ sunken cheeks and Eamon Egan’s girth as it is in Reverend Swain’s Impossible Standard and I expect these small tales help to soften the blow, not only for invalid Ruth, but for us readers too. They transport us away for a time for each of us has our struggles. Ruth says it like this:

“We tell stories to heal the pain of living.”

I think that’s why we read them too.

Posted by Gabrielle Blondell