‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” Novelist L. P. Hartley’s iconic opening line in The Go-Between reflects our instinctual urge to look back and remember, and Niall Williams’s latest novel, This is Happiness, wholeheartedly embraces this wistful remembering in the most charming and uplifting way.
Set during the time of the Rural Electrification Scheme, This is Happiness is a gentle, moving rendering of village life in Ireland on the cusp of change.
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In an age of oversharing, over-exposure and over-reliance on technology, it is a treat to get a glimpse into a different world, a quieter, simpler world, brought warmly and faithfully to life by this talented writer.
Williams claims on the second page that “a hundred books could not capture a single village”.
But that is exactly what he does here with the town of Faha, a town which “long since accepted that by dint of personality and geography its destiny was to be a place passed over, and gently and wholly forgotten”.
He depicts the village and community life with such luminosity that I felt I truly knew its character and characters when I reached the last page. Not unlike the town itself, 17-year-old Noel Crowe is a shy and quiet boy, whose life is on the brink of change. He finds himself recently returned to the village of his grandparents, Doady and Ganga, and is idling in the sunshine when a stranger comes to town, pronouncing “Faha isn’t used to sunshine, the sky mostly grey, the colour of distillate”.
But for now the rain has stopped, and “in the first moments of after-rain there was an undeniable newness”.
In this beautifully written novel, every image, every brushstroke is employed to illuminate this chrysalis-to-butterfly moment; the moment that Christy, the stranger, the bringer of electricity and light, enters Noel’s life and the life of the villagers.
Unshaven and wearing a startling blue linen suit, he brings stories from far-flung places, speaking aloud his history of love.
As the villagers await the long-overdue arrival of electricity, Noel is tasked with showing Christy “the entertainments on offer” in Faha, occasioning his first hangover after they sample the delights of the local pubs, telling stories and singing songs.
Storytelling, as a means of “passing time and dissolving the hours of dark”, is another major theme of the book, and this particular fable of love and atonement is told in the unhurried, circuitous manner of old, luring the reader into a dream-like state, from which you emerge blinking into the harsher light of today.
This novel is definitely not misery-lit, but rather a delightful affirmation of life and love.
In it, stock characters come alive; the parish priest, the local doctor, the town beauties, the village drunk, but Williams invests them all with such authenticity that you feel like you know them personally, and are wholly the better for it.
A warm-hearted and life-affirming read about love. .and transformation.
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