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Posts Tagged ‘Ireland’

It had been years since I’ve read Niall Williams. I own the series of nonfiction books he and Christine Breen wrote about moving from New York to County Clare. We went through a serious phase in our thirties of wanting to live radically differently than we do. We researched various alternatives, and that was how I found the Kiltumper books.

I knew that Williams went on to write fiction (and so has Breen, I learned this evening), but I hadn’t read any of his novels until now. This is Happiness caught my eye in the spring when I still thought I’d be ordering new fiction sometime this year for the library. I put a hold on the eBook and just got to check it out last week.

It’s the story of Noe, a seventeen year old who has left seminary in the early 70s and comes from Dublin to Clare to visit his grandparents, Ganga, a perennially happy but not very productive small farmer and Doady, his long suffering wife. While Noe is staying with them, their Faha, is being connected to the electrical grid. Not long after he arrives, Christy comes to board. He works for the electrical company and is there to assure the various property holders have signed off on the paperwork necessary to install the poles and lines.

But as Noe learns, Christy is really in Faha on a mission. He jilted a woman fifty years before, and is there to gain her forgiveness. In the meantime, he rides bicycles around the countryside with Noe, seeking a particular fiddle player. An unlikely friendship, this older man who is trying to walk back his regrets and a young one, unsure of his future? Perhaps, but it makes sense. In a way they are both trying to understand how best to live.

Noe is recalling all of this as an old man. Williams weaves the stories through a spring and summer when miraculously, it stops raining. Noe’s and Christy’s stories unspool slowly, and maybe because I read this book during a week when it was hot and mostly dry, that seemed fitting. At one point, Noe explains his long, winding digressions:

“The known world was not so circumscribed then nor knowledge equated with facts. Story was a kind of human binding. I can’t explain it any better than that. There was telling everywhere. Because there were fewer sources of where to find out anything, there was more listening.”

Sounds delightful, doesn’t it?

The details are so vivid in this book you’ll see the “car” Doady and Ganga take to church, pulled by an aging horse, smell the turf smoke, feel the heat that induces naps and the people bumping close together in St. Cecelia’s where everyone just moves down the pew and makes space. Williams’ musical, witty turns of phrase can help you picture expressions. For example, describing a neighbor:

“Bat was a man who tried in vain to make himself believable. He often looked like he was in mid-sum and realising he had forgotten to carry the one.”

And, when Noe develops a truly crushing crush on a young woman:

“I said her name, and, like the first man to eat the egg of a bird, felt a little ascension, and like him wouldn’t have been surprised to find feathers at my back.”

While we actually never learn whether Noe decides his future, Williams does bring Christy’s story to a tidy conclusion. And we learn that it’s his philosophy that “this is happiness” — meaning we can be content in the moment, even when things aren’t going our way (as they frequently don’t, in Faha). Ganga also ascribes to this, as he tells Rushe, and engineer from the electric company, that he and Doady aren’t “taking” the electricity which Rushe tells them contains, “In one switch, all the cures for loneliness.”

“Aren’t we happy as we are?” Ganga asks.

Imagine that. a lovely book about life and love, and yes, happiness.

 

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I’ve been wanting to read Brooklyn for some time but like many other books that slip down my to read list, I’d sort of forgotten it. Then it was found several shelves away from it where it was supposed to be after having gone missing in the library, and so when it turned up, I was reminded, and checked it out.

Brooklyn  is the story of Eilis, a young woman in a small town in Ireland in the 1950’s, whose sister Rose arranges her passage to America with a priest, Father Flood, visiting from Brooklyn. Rose and Father Flood set the plan in motion and soon Eilis has a job at Bartocci’s department store and a room at Mrs Kehoe’s boarding house. Eilis isn’t sure this is really the life she wants, but she lets the plans proceed rather than hurt her mother or Rose.

The novel follows her on the voyage, her first days in Brooklyn, her life among the women at work and at Mrs. Kehoe’s. We see her grow into her new life, taking courses in accounting, having a serious boyfriend. It’s a quiet book, closely examining her feelings and observations.

Even though I sometimes wanted to take Eilis aside and tell her to make up her mind, there were things about her that felt familiar and evoked my empathy. The way she did not quite know how to deal with men’s attentions, and how she wanted to be careful of other people’s feelings, for example. Still, even though she grows up a little, she mostly lets life happen to her, unless someone else brings pressure to bear, and then she is redirected.

The ending did leave a few things unpleasantly unresolved — I am not after a tidy ending every time, with i’s dotted and t’s crossed, but Brooklyn ends with several characters lives about to be impacted, and I wanted to know more. I enjoyed the historical details, and the atmospheric feel to the novel, enough to want to see the movie. A diverting, well written book, satisfying enough for a couple of nights.

 

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