Book Review – This is Happiness by Niall Williams

This is Happiness begins with the sky clearing and the rain stopping just after 3 o’clock on the Wednesday afternoon of Holy Week in 1958 while the people of Faha in county Clare are at Church. This is a rare occurrence in Faha as rain ‘was a condition of living’. Seventeen-year-old Noel Crowe, known as ‘Noe’ is on his way to Faha to stay with his grandparents. He has fled the seminary having lost faith in his vocation after the slow death of his mother, fearing that he ‘might not discover what it meant to live a fully human life’. At his grandparents’ house, Noe shares both the attic room and friendship with Christy, an aging man who had come to Faha to sign up people to have electricity connected to their homes – for electricity is slowly being rolled out cross rural Ireland. Noe discovers that Christy has other reasons for coming to Faha, he means to atone for a life-changing mistake made in his youth. What follow is something of a coming of age story and a meditation on love and loss. The novel tells too, with a light hand, the story of the electrification of rural Ireland with its signed agreements and cables and poles. It also ponders the irrevocable changes that will come with the electrification and the passing of, in some respects, an ‘easier and more natural way of living’.

This is Happiness is told in the first person by Noe, now aged seventy-eight, in the beautiful rhythms of Irish English. As well as moments of gentle humour, there is an element of nostalgia for a way of life now gone, for the slow rhythms of life lived as it had been for generations and for those people, such as his grandparents, who had lived that life. But beneath the surface there is awareness of the hardness and vagaries of life – the gossips behind their curtains, the families with more children than can be easily fed, the inherent hierarchy found in old communities. And there is an acknowledgement too that Noe’s view is coloured by the passing of the years and is not, perhaps, the complete picture – ‘here’s the thing life teaches you: sometimes the truth can only be reached by exaggeration’.

There is a plot within This is Happiness but it is not the sort that is a headlong rush towards a grand denouement. The greatest joy in reading This is Happiness comes from its gentle humour and the pleasure of being enraptured by the storyteller’s voice.

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