Book Review: This is Happiness by Niall Williams

“Life is a comedy, with sad bits“. So says Niall Williams in his novel, This is Happiness, which tells the coming-of-age story of Noel Crowe.  Having left the seminary after one year, abandoning his quest to be a priest, an idea that came to him at his mother’s deathbed, Noel journeys to the small village of Faha in County Clare, to stay with his grandparents, Ganga and Doady. Faha is about to ”get the electricity” which brings  other folks  to Faha looking for work, one being Christy,  who becomes a temporary lodger at his grandparents’ home. Christy and Noel become almost inseparable, one in search of love, the other in search of forgiveness.

Niall Williams himself lives in Clare, and his love for his county comes through in every word. Williams does not whitewash the Irish country side, but gives it to the reader in all its natural wonder. The main road in the village has the  “cut of a comma”,  where one should pause. At night the stars “hang with naked wonder, the mild breezes of April seem eloquent”  and while playing cards In the  front garden on a long summer evening, ..”the river sang on, soft and blind in the distance, and there was the sense that Faha had slipped its moorings and slid away from the country, which sped on, without noticing the lack“. Faha becomes the last vestige of an old Ireland, the one without electricity, a place that appears to have nothing, but  on closer inspection, has everything.   Williams make clear to the reader what is lost with the inevitable movement forward.

The people of Faha are introduced to the reader in St.Cecilia’s, the small church in Faha, where in the reader’s also introduced to William’s brilliant use of what I have come to call,the Irish idiom.  “Like those in the Ark, there was an unwritten order to how the parishioners came into the church and where they sat” It is also in those first few pages that the reader  quickly comes to understand everyone has a story.  “One proud pew of MacInernys,…each born in April nine months after the haymaking and each with something of summer in their natures“ and then Williams goes on to tell us of “Mick Boyland, who suffers an incurable affliction called Maureen“. Ganga and Doady, Noel’s  grandparents,  who raised twelve sons, teaches the most enduring lessons to their grandson. These are two characters, from a cast of so many memorable people in this story,   who will stay with me forever.

Faha is also where Noel “learned the music”, as Ganga handed his grandson his fiddle one day. Christy and Noel spend many summer evenings biking all over the county looking for the music, knowing Irish traditional music  never had a set time or place to appear. You just had to be there when it appeared. When coming upon three elderly musicians one evening, Noel comes to understand that, indeed, the music was not a thing learned, and no one owned it. The tunes were in the air thereabouts and were of that place at that time. “Irish music was a language of its own, accommodating expression of ecstasy and rapture and lightness as well as sadness and darkness and loss, and traced the history of humanity going round and round”.  This is an Irish perspective I have been trying to put into words for decades now, and Williams does in seven:  “Life is a comedy with sad bits.”

Reading this book, I laughed out loud, I moaned with the pain of a scene, I reread a sentence several times to fully visualize the scene in it, I reread others aloud to listen to the words, just to listen to the sound and rhythm of his sentences, for Niall Williams  has composed a sacred song to his County Clare and her people because eventually, we all become stories, as his Faha does when the lights go on.


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