The BookBrowse Review

Published January 22, 2020

ISSN: 1930-0018

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This Is Happiness
This Is Happiness
by Niall Williams

Hardcover (3 Dec 2019), 400 pages.
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
ISBN-13: 9781635574203

A profound and enchanting new novel from Booker Prize-longlisted author Niall Williams about the loves of our lives and the joys of reminiscing.

You don't see rain stop, but you sense it. You sense something has changed in the frequency you've been living and you hear the quietness you thought was silence get quieter still, and you raise your head so your eyes can make sense of what your ears have already told you, which at first is only: something has changed.

The rain is stopping. Nobody in the small, forgotten village of Faha remembers when it started; rain on the western seaboard was a condition of living. Now--just as Father Coffey proclaims the coming of electricity--it is stopping. Seventeen-year-old Noel Crowe is standing outside his grandparents' house shortly after the rain has stopped when he encounters Christy for the first time. Though he can't explain it, Noel knows right then: something has changed.

This is the story of all that was to follow: Christy's long-lost love and why he had come to Faha, Noel's own experiences falling in and out of love, and the endlessly postponed arrival of electricity--a development that, once complete, would leave behind a world that had not changed for centuries.

Niall Williams' latest novel is an intricately observed portrait of a community, its idiosyncrasies and its traditions, its paradoxes and its inanities, its failures and its triumphs. Luminous and otherworldly, and yet anchored with deep-running roots into the earthy and the everyday, This Is Happiness is about stories as the very stuff of life: the ways they make the texture and matter of our world, and the ways they write and rewrite us.

This is Happiness

It had stopped raining.

Nobody in Faha could remember when it started. Rain there on the western seaboard was a condition of living. It came straight-down and sideways, frontwards, backwards and any other wards God could think of. It came in sweeps, in waves, sometimes in veils. It came dressed as drizzle, as mizzle, as mist, as showers, frequent and widespread, as a wet fog, as a damp day, a drop, a dreeping, and an out-and-out downpour. It came the fine day, the bright day, and the day promised dry. It came at any time of the day and night, and in all seasons, regardless of calendar and forecast, until in Faha your clothes were rain and your skin was rain and your house was rain with a fireplace. It came off the grey vastness of an Atlantic that threw itself against the land like a lover once spurned and resolved not to be so again. It came accompanied by seagulls and smells of salt and seaweed. It came with cold air and curtained light. It came like a judgement, or, in benign version, like a blessing God had forgotten he had left on. It came for a handkerchief of blue sky, came on westerlies, sometimes – why not? – on easterlies, came in clouds that broke their backs on the mountains in Kerry and fell into Clare, making mud the ground and blind the air. It came disguised as hail, as sleet, but never as snow. It came softly sometimes, tenderly sometimes, its spears turned to kisses, in rain that pretended it was not rain, that had come down to be closer to the fields whose green it loved and fostered, until it drowned them.

All of which, to attest to the one truth: in Faha, it rained.

But now, it had stopped.

Not that anyone in Faha noticed. First, because it happened just after three o'clock on Spy Wednesday and the parish was concertina'd inside the Men's Aisle, the Women's Aisle and the Long Aisle of the sinking church which at that time was still called St Cecelia's. Second, when the parishioners came outside their minds had been exalted by the Latin, and the suffering of Christ the Redeemer made inconsequential thoughts of anything else. And third, they and the rain had been married so long they no longer took notice of each other.

I myself am seventy-eight years and telling here of a time over six decades ago. I know it seems unlikely that Faha then might have been the place to learn how to live, but in my experience the likely is not in God's lexicon.

Now, that world, the one whose front doors were never closed in the daytime, whose back doors were never locked but unlatched and entered on an evening, where you stepped down, God bless, on to a flag floor into a cloud of turf and tobacco smoke, that one has perished. And though some of its people, like Michael Donnelly, Delia Considine, Mary Egan and Marty Brogan, have postponed the graveyard and are in lonely old houses out the country that are home to rheumatism and damp and the battle of the long afternoons, its doors are shielded by caution and fear of the corrosive nature of nostalgia. And because I'm antique myself now, aware that by the mercy of creation the soonest thing to evaporate in memory is hardship and rain, I understand that between then and now, as between mystery and meaning, there's maybe too great a gap, and in the world you're living, this one, the one where it stopped raining in Faha on the Wednesday of Holy Week, might be too far, too remote in time and manner for you to enter.

Bear with me awhile; grandfathers have few privileges and the knowledge of your own redundancy has a keen tooth.

A hundred books could not capture a single village. That's not a denigration, that's a testament. Faha was no more nor less than any other like place. If you could find it, you'd be on your way somewhere else. The country is filled with places of more blatant beauty. Good luck to them. Faha doesn't care. It long since accepted that by dint of personality and geography its destiny was to be a place passed over, and gently, wholly forgotten.

Full Excerpt

Excerpted from This Is Happiness by Paige Williams. Copyright © 2019 by Paige Williams. Excerpted by permission of Bloomsbury USA. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

In Niall Williams's keenly observed, lyrical novel, a long-dormant love story is revived against the backdrop of rural electrification in Ireland.

Print Article Publisher's View   

Niall Williams's This Is Happiness offers an extraordinary portrait of a particular moment in the history of one small corner of Ireland. The novel begins in the late 1950s, as several remarkable events converge in the tiny town of Faha, in County Kerry. Just as the townspeople are preparing for the sacred observations of Holy Week, two things happen simultaneously: a man named Christy arrives to start laying cable that will connect Faha to Ireland's slowly expanding electrical grid (see Beyond the Book) and it stops raining. The second fact here seems, to the novel's narrator, more of a wonder than electric lights; rain is such a constant in this part of Ireland that life without it seems like a different set of possibilities: "In Faha your clothes were rain and your skin was rain and your house was rain with a fireplace."

To 17-year-old Noel (Noe) Crowe, who has recently arrived in Faha from Dublin to stay with his grandparents following his withdrawal from seminary and the slow decline of his mother, the nearly unimaginable change in the weather makes the arrival of Christy seem that much more remarkable. Noe has plenty of opportunities to observe Christy, who is also lodging with Noe's grandparents while he performs his work.

Young Noe finds himself a willing apprentice (and eventual accomplice) to the much older man, especially once he comes to discover that electrifying Faha is not the most important reason for Christy's arrival in the village. Christy, in fact, has come to Faha in hopes of reconnecting with the woman he once knew (and loved) as Alice Mooney, but whom residents of Faha know as Mrs. Annie Gaffney, a respected widow who has taken over as the town's chemist since the death of her husband. Almost before he knows it, Noe finds himself accompanying Christy on early morning serenades and spontaneous road trips. And over time, Noe—who arrived in Faha utterly adrift and without a sense of where he was meant to be or why—becomes profoundly grateful to be in just the right place and time to watch Christy and Annie's decades-long love story come to its bittersweet resolution.

Williams—whose previous novel History of the Rain was longlisted for the Booker Prize—does something quite remarkable with the narration of his latest novel. This Is Happiness is narrated by a present-day Noe, now an old man, recalling with vivid clarity the events of what might be called the last summer of his boyhood. As present-day Noe recounts his youthful friendship with the much older Christy, the narration melds together the younger Noe's naivete and sense of wonder and the older Noe's long-range perspective and wisdom.

Particularly given this narrative structure—an old man recalling his youthful exploits—This Is Happiness could easily veer into the realms of sentimentality, but it never does. There's a type of nostalgia, to be sure, especially as Faha—like the rest of rural Ireland—sits on the brink of an entirely new way of life. But there's no wistful longing to bring back those days of yore—just an honest reckoning that, as fondly as those days and people and adventures may be remembered, they now exist only as memories, recalled with genuine appreciation of having not only witnessed but truly lived through such times.

Williams's writing can be both grounded in keenly drawn details of character and place and also lyrical in its descriptions of everything from heartbreak ("I loved you once is among the saddest lines in humanity") to the weather:

It came dressed as drizzle, as mizzle, as mist, as showers, frequent and widespread, as a wet fog, as a damp day, a drop, a dreeping, and an out-and-out downpour.

As in this passage, Williams's prose is frequently whimsical and inventive, again helping to counteract any tendencies toward the maudlin or melancholy and urging readers—like young Noe himself does—to make themselves at home in Faha and live through the stories they discover there.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl

New York Times
Where the book’s digressions sometimes bog down are in its more self-reflective moments: Noe the storyteller defending himself against charges (but whose?) of sentimentality and holding forth on the relationship between story and truth...'Oh, just shut up and take me back to Faha,' I wanted to interject at times. But I couldn’t and wouldn’t; he’s too sweet a fellow...Be kind, he admonishes the reader directly at one point, and it’s a testament to this bighearted novel that I felt duly chastened, almost like a member of the clan.

Washington Post
The sweetness of this novel would curdle if it weren’t preserved by a tincture of tragedy that runs through so many of these lives...This is a story about the beginnings of love and the persistence of affection, about the loss of faith and the recovering of belief. If you’re a reader of a certain frame of mind, craving a novel of delicate wit laced with rare insight, this, truly, is happiness.

BookPage (starred review)
The beauty and power of Irish author Niall Williams' writing lies in his ability to invest the quotidian with wonder. A truly peerless wordsmith, he even makes descriptions of gleaming white appliances and telephone wire sing…the book is hilarious among its many other virtues. Buy, rent, get your hands on this book somehow and savor every word of it. Its title says it all: Plunging into This is Happiness is happiness indeed.

The Observer (UK)
Admirers of Niall Williams' Booker longlisted History of the Rain will not be disappointed to learn that his latest novel is possibly even better.

The Guardian (UK)
A kind of tectonic movement from spring into summer, marked by the rhythms of village life...[Williams] has a humorist's eye, and his own fond amusement at the people he writes about shines out through the writing.

Publishers Weekly
In glorious and lyrical prose, Williams spins the tale of one 1958 season in the village of Faha, County Kerry. Noe's reminiscences of that period are full of beauty and hard-won wisdom. This novel is a delight.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
Warm and whimsical, sometimes sorrowful, but always expressed in curlicues of Irish lyricism, this charming book makes varied use of its electrical metaphor, not least to express the flickering pulse of humanity. A story both little and large and one that pulls out all the Irish stops.

Booklist (starred review)
With a beckoning gentleness that belies the deeper philosophies at play, superb Irish author Williams offers a lilting, magical homage to time and redemption, and a stirring, sentimental journey into the mysteries of love and the possibilities of friendship.

Write your own review

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by JD
This is Happiness
This is the most beautifully written book!
This is happiness just reading this book. Makes you realize how happy the simple life is and it is filled with lovable characters. It is brim full of kindness and a reminder of what we should be doing now. Loved this book and didn’t want it to end. Would love to meet the author who must be a kind and generous man.

Print Article Publisher's View  

The Electrification of Rural Ireland

Materials Being Unloaded for Shannon Hydroelectric Scheme in 1925 The personal events of Niall Williams's This Is Happiness are sparked by the impending arrival of electricity to Faha, a tiny hamlet in rural Ireland. The gradual electrification of this largely rural country was a decades-long process that extended over much of the middle part of the 20th century and that has been called the Quiet Revolution because of the extent to which it transformed the lives of ordinary Irish people.

Electricity—largely fueled by local and privately held companies—had existed in Dublin since the late 19th century. But beginning in the 1920s, two developments began to pave the way for broader electrical reach. First, the Irish government approved an initiative to install a hydroelectric plant tied to Ireland's largest river, the Shannon, in 1925. Following successful construction of the Shannon dam and hydroelectric plant, the nationwide Electricity Supply Board (ESB) was established in 1927 to oversee Ireland's electrical supply and develop a nationwide electrical network.

In the mid-1940s, when some 400,000 Irish households still had no electricity, the project of rural electrification began in earnest, with an electrical infrastructure built one pole and one spool of cable at a time. Just as Williams chronicles in his novel, the ESB employed contractors to champion electricity in rural villages and to enlist local support (and labor) for the project. Priests were encouraged to preach the gospel of electricity to their parishioners, and enthusiastic early adopters were urged to enlist their friends and neighbors, since the ESB was more likely to bring service to a region if its residents could prove a groundswell of local support.

Each of the early 800 or so areas identified for rural electrification kept records and correspondence related to the decision to electrify, making for a fascinating glimpse into local history and politics archived at the ESB's headquarters. Although the electrification process was subsidized, it did require a modest connection fee paid by individual households. As Williams shows in his novel, not all residents in rural areas were immediately keen to get on the grid. Beyond the added expense, many rural Irish people resented the way the electrical poles crisscrossed farm fields or passed too close to public roads. Others claimed not to see the value of electricity, reasoning that they had gotten along long enough without it.

These objections aside, the transformative possibilities of electrical power were no joke; as one Irish Times columnist put it in 1948, "somebody – I cannot remember who – switched on the lights in some village – I cannot remember where – and rural electrification took her bow. And if that does not mean more to the country than all the rest of the year's events put together I shall be very surprised indeed." Some credit the advent of electricity with the diminishment of superstitious belief systems. Entrepreneurs, of course, saw the rural electrification program as a business opportunity—in the wake of the electricians who installed the power lines came salesmen eager to sing the praises of new electrical appliances and other modern conveniences. But arguably the most significant advance brought about by electric power was its ability to ease social isolation and enable social connection via televisions and telephones and at gathering places such as ballrooms and concert halls lit by electric lights.

The process of rural electrification was not accomplished overnight; according to the ESB's records, the last communities were not connected until 1978. But over the course of those several decades, the way of life for rural Irish people became dramatically different, enabling them to connect with the outside world—and with each other—in new and modern ways.

Machinery from Siemens-Bauunion for Shannon hydroelectric scheme being unloaded at Limerick docks, 1925

Filed under People, Eras & Events

By Norah Piehl

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