History of the Rain by Niall Williams [Man Booker longlist 2014]
It rains in Ireland. A lot. Though maybe not true to say it hasn’t stopped raining since the sixteenth-century as Ruth Swain wryly observes when she lies in her boat-shaped bed watching rain streaming on to the skylight. The 19-year-old girl is confined to bed with a debilitating, but unidentified, disorder of the blood. To summarise in her own words: “I have had Something Amiss, Something Puzzling and We’re Not Sure Yet.”
In her room under the eaves, surrounded by shelves full to toppling, she reads her way through 3,958 books collected by her late father; a poet (unsuccessful) and erstwhile farmer (a greater failure) who laboured under the wonderfully ironic name of Virgil. Ruth is a book lover, a “reader of so many nineteenth-century novels before the age of fifteen that I became exactly too clever by half, sufferer of Smart Girl Syndrome.” (this is a girl much in love with capital letters).
Through the books, the notes she finds pressed between their pages; old maps and envelopes, Ruth tells the story of her family. It’s a story of people haunted by the expectations of the Swain Philosophy of the Impossible Standard, the basis of which is that no matter how hard you try you can’t ever be good enough. Grandfather Abraham Swain gave up trying to reach the standard after his experience in the trenches of World War 1. Forming the view that the world was random and meaningless he opted to escape to a quiet life of salmon fishing in the west of Ireland. The life of Ruth’s father is similarly linked to the water. He went to sea as a young man when his parents died and the bank closed in on their grand house near the village of Faha, County Clare. When he returns years later, he’s discovered by a local woman standing stock still on the rain-swollen bank of the River Shannon. Rescued from one watery demise, he jumps straight into another, taking a farm on some of the most soggy land in Ireland. Nothing he tries succeeds; his cattle die, his potatoes flourish then succumb to blight and every day the River Shannon encroaches a little further towards his home.
If this sounds a rather depressing tale, you’d be wrong. Ruth is a sparky narrator, full of spiky comments about Ireland, her family, neighbours, friends; just about everything and everyone in fact. Nor does she spare herself
History of the Rain is a strange novel; comic in some parts, lyrical and semi mystical in others. It’s stuffed with odd people like Tuan MacCarill, who according to family legend survived a plague of midges by turning into a salmon. It’s also crammed with references to literature from Ruth’s dad who reads William Blake to his cows to Ruth herself who identifies with the bedridden genius of Robert Louis Stevenson. “I like writers who were sick. I like it that his imagination sailed him away into adventures while his body was lying in his bed with the first stage of consumption.” In Faha she sees contemporary equivalents of characters from her beloved Charles Dickens’ novels. The undertaker reminds her of Vincent Crumbles in Nicholas Nickleby; her grandmother of The Aged P in Great Expectations and her devoted boyfriend’s devotion to that of Mr Quayle in Bleak House.
Dickens is like this different country where the people are brighter, more vivid, more comic, more tragic, and in their company you feel the world is richer, more fantastic than you imagined.
Eccentric this novel certainly is. Entertaining? Yes and no. I enjoyed the quirkiness of the first part of the novel. I warmed to Ruth the more I read of this rather quaint wry-humoured Rapunzel. I admired the ending and how Williams somehow, impossibly, brings together his metaphors of books, salmon and rain.
But it’s also an uneven novel. My interest dipped markedly half way through and I almost gave up on it. It felt like a novel which was too much in love with itself and having too much fun on its own to worry whether it was entertaining me. I persevered and was glad I did in the end. Read it if you like novels with intelligent, insightful and sparky narrators. Read it if you like convoluted novels about comic, tragic Irish families. But make sure to buy an umbrella first.