History of the Rain by Niall Williams

Ruth Swain lies in her sick bed and writes the history of her family, which is also the history of her town in Clare, Ireland. She writes of how Irish people grew up from the seaweed, people of story and myth trying their best to take that impossible leap against the tide that will eventually send them back into the cycle of cloud, rain, river and sea. Somewhere in History of the Rain there is a quote (I blame kindle for being unable to find it – how much easier it is to locate things, regardless of search buttons, in physical books with pages where your fingers and eyes find remembered words) about how people remember not what you do or write, but what you made them feel. This is very true of History of the Rain.

The novel is endlessly quotable and there is something both pleasing and irritating about this. It is undeniably a well-written story, full of those writerly conversations readers and writers are addicted to – “All writers are waiting for replies. That’s what I’ve learned. Maybe all human beings are.” Locations 5097 – where the history of what you read becomes part of your identity, the story of yourself. Without giving it away, the story is also full of enough family trouble to tug on the heart-strings, especially my heart strings primed with some similar family troubles, but I leave the book both moved and unconvinced. It’s as if I’ve been tricked into feeling, as if the whole novel were some kind of essay in life and in the end I wonder if the novel suffers from its own self-consciousness where the literary canon weighs the words down and forces them to stand in little neat phrases rather than in one long distinct whole. It is true that no story stands alone, but I think I read to find something different, not to find more of what I have already read.

This is an extremely harsh reaction to the book, which many will undoubtedly love with a passion, and this idea that Ruth has of being half part, her father’s Swain half, of a family labouring under the Impossible Standard against which no endeavour will ever quite succeed, makes it impossible not to contend with the literary canon and with God making what I dislike also pivotal to the novel. So, I recommend this book to those who love remarks about the sentimental, romantic nature of men and the carrying-on nature of women (which I don’t), and those whose life is part conversation with authors they have only ever met in the pages of books. I suppose I leave the novel in a state of contradiction. Time will tell which side of me wins over: the side in which the novel leaves a cloying, unpleasant aftertaste or the side that ended the book crying over a story that inspired self pity for my own.

Read it and let me know what you think.

Next week I’m reading Suspending Sentences: Three Novellas by Patrick Modiano.

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