Niall Williams’ latest novel, “This Is Happiness,” returns readers to the sodden setting of his previous work, the 2014 Booker Prize-longlisted “History of the Rain.” Once again we are in Faha, a village on the western seaboard of Ireland. Further surface-level similarities link the two books. “In Faha everyone is a long story,” declared the 19-year-old narrator of that last offering. In Williams’ new novel, which centers upon another teenager, we are told that in Faha “tales of anything as aberrant and contrary as humans had to be long.”
But there those similarities end. In “This Is Happiness,” Williams swaps family saga for a portrait of a community on the cusp of change. And instead of clear-and-present rain saturating the proceedings, the events this time around play out during a freak spell made up of cloudless skies and sun “Spanishing the air.” It is in this extended lull between showers and within the confines of a town that time forgot that Williams’ 17-year-old protagonist sloughs off his adolescence and learns valuable lessons about love, forgiveness and the power and potential of stories.
Our narrator is Noe (short for Noel), who looks back down the decades on his younger self in the early 1970s. Having turned his back on Dublin and the seminary, Noe arrives in Faha and moves in with his grandparents. This lonely, rudderless boy “on the margin of life” quickly settles in and acquires confidence and purpose.
As the parish prepares, somewhat reluctantly, for long-overdue electrification, a mysterious, well-traveled stranger appears: an “electricity man” called Christy. “I’m bringing the light,” he proclaims, while keeping his real reason for being in a town shrouded in darkness. He takes Noe under his wing, and eventually confides in his protégé. Half a century ago he broke the heart of Annie Mooney — now the chemist’s widow — after leaving her at the altar. Noe discovers that Christy is “resolved on a career of reparation.” But Christy isn’t the only man on a mission. Noe has been besotted with the doctor’s daughter, Sophie Troy, ever since she tended to him following his accident with an electrical pole.
This is a charming, often moving book, enriched by beautifully drawn characters and brilliantly depicted scenes from country life. The narrative unfurls at a languid pace: We drift from Easter services to games of Gaelic football, from pub sessions to house dances. And yet we happily surrender to the gentle rhythms of the drama and the lilting cadences of the prose. Again and again Williams ensures there is musicality in standard descriptions (rain in Faha “came the fine day, the bright day, and the day promised dry”) and poetry gilding commonplace truths: “This life is full of hurts and heals, we bruise off each other just by living.”
Williams has written a memorable novel that vividly brings alive both a different era and two different male characters — “knights of first and last loves.”
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the New Republic. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
This Is Happiness
By: Niall Williams.
Publisher: Bloomsbury, 380 pages, $28.