History of the Rain by Niall Williams – Book Review

Bedridden bookworm, Ruth Swain, spins a story focused on the paternal genealogy of her family aided by the insights from the inhabitants of her rural Irish village and some famous literary characters.

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I am not surprised that this book made the long list for the ManBooker 2014. Niall Williams has created a work which is both deeply insightful, emotionally rich, evoking universal themes through a parochial lens and above all it is so beautifully written that you could imagine that each sentence might have taken a week to sculpt.

While it is set in the present day the story has a classic edge and is told by the agoraphobic, ill-stricken and well-read narrator Ruth as she occupies her time in the attic of her family home trying to paint a literary picture of her father. To do this she explains, she must begin with her Great-Grand Father. We are treated to their rich history which she patches together by borrowing from voices of long dead authors.

Ruth’s narrative is full of lovely ironic humour which underlines the regret she feels her ancestors sensed about their own offspring.

Even though the story is set in post-economic-bust Ireland the style is classic in nature. It is a first person internal monologue from the self-confessed unreliable narration from Ruth. She admits very early on that she knows little about her ancestors but manages to bring them alive through the many references from literary authors, their characters and gossipy allusions from the ‘real’ people who live in her village of Faha. It is these devices which breathes life and grounds William’s novel and its main character.

Like a song the music of the sentences lures you in and like a river the winding story carries you to the end.

Her own character is an amalgam influence of the classic texts of Charles Dickens and Robert Louis Stevenson to which she alludes often. She is externally bitter at her confinement but her softly jumbled internal voice proves that lives can be lived and created through literature. Ruth Swain’s character exemplifies the differences between the way people think and the way we act.

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This is a novel about seeking and revealing truths about the world, about families, about community, about isolation, the overcoming of obstacles, loss and about writing.

As well as all of the above “History of the Rain” is a novel that speaks directly to readers and writers about how stories are put together. The allusions to literary characters are treated in such a way that readers familiar with them will warm to their memories but Williams introduces them with a style that will not alienate those unfamiliar with the texts. This combined with the narrator’s comic use of the colloquialisms from her neighbours throughout the story makes the novel in some ways a subtle guide to writing.

He is proving the point that he makes in this sentence which arrives toward the end of the novel.

“Each book is the sum of all the others the writer has read”.

This is a wonderful sum.

8/10

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