Reviewed by Karen Howlett
Plain Ruth Swain is bed-bound in her attic room beneath the skylight and the ever-present rain, for this is the west of Ireland, Faha, County Clare, and fourteen acres of sodden farmland by the River Shannon, and as Ruth gives us her family history, and notes that ‘down this narrative all manner of things will float’, it’s a river of a tale she tells, sometimes meandering, trickling, gushing, rushing, but always flowing with such humour and poignancy that no reader will come away unaffected, unmoved.
We tell stories to pass the time, to leave the world for a while, or go more deeply into it. We tell stories to heal the pain of living.
Ruth’s as yet undefined illness has cut short her university career, and now with days to fill and only the fall of the rain to animate her surroundings, she turns inwards in search of the father she has lost, trying to understand the man who was a poet in a farmer’s clothes, a soul far adrift on the river of life. In seeking to take a grip of him, Ruthie goes back to the source, as it were, to her great-grandfather the restless Reverend Swain whose philosophy was that of the Impossible Standard, always aspiring, reaching beyond the ordinary, but never being quite good enough.
The Reverend’s son, Grandfather Abraham, went to Oxford to read and wait for his vocation, but ‘God had a good few clients in those days and He hadn’t had anyone invent mobiles or texting, so it took time to get around to calling them each individually,’ and before He could, it was Lord Kitchener’s call to arms Abraham answered, and he was sent to France.
Then a close call takes the still vocationless young man by a circuitous route to Ireland, and all in good time to the birth of his son Virgil who will be Ruthie’s father: a reader, a sailor, an optimist, a trier whose true domain was destined to be the hopeless, but one whose lodestar was books and reading and the possibility that he might be a writer himself one day, and ‘everything that followed flowed down the river from that’.
It is through Virgil’s library that Ruthie seeks to know her father, and the books which it contains – picked up on his travels, read and re-read – become commentary on, interpretation of and punctuation to both his and her life. Dickens, who once ‘came to Dublin for an imagination Top-Up’ is there and so is Robert Louis Stevenson, Tolstoy and Emily Dickinson, Swift and Austen, and on and on through the canon …Every reminiscence of Ruth’s, every recollection is reflected in one of the three thousand, nine hundred and fifty eight volumes piled high in her attic room, and so we’re told that it was when Virgil as a young man and with his family in straitened circumstances was revisiting Moby Dick ‘(Book 2,333, Herman Melville, Penguin, London)’ that he put down the book and began a novel of his own.
Now it takes a certain twist of mind to be able to write anything. And another twist to be able to write every day in a house that’s falling down around you with a mother who’s working her way through the wine cellar … My father had both twists. As Matty Nolan said about Father Foley, Poor Man, when he came back with the brown feet after thirty years in Africa, he was Far Gone. Virgil had that power of concentration that he passed on to me. He filled one journal and started on the next. He went a bit Marcus Aurelius (Book 746, Meditations, Penguin Classics, London) who said men were born with various mania. Young Marcus’s was, he said, to make a plaything of imaginary events. Virgil Swain meet Marcus. Imaginary events, imaginary people, imaginary places, whatever you’re having yourself. Gold-medal Mania … Point is, he was very Far Gone.
But in later life it was poetry Virgil turned to, poetry which sustained him when it became clear he was no farmer, when the potatoes succumbed to blight, the ditches couldn’t be drained, and his river-bounded, flooded acres were good for nothing much. Day after day, night after night, he picked up his pen and wrote, and Ruth, watching and listening nearby, knew that she was ‘hearing the poem happen, that there was air under us and we were away, in some other place where marvels were and dazzlement common.’
And as Ruth knows, ‘the secret to writing, the entire syllabus, booklist, coursework of Ruth Swain’s Master’s programme in Creative Writing is four words: Sit in the Chair. Or in mine and RLS’s case, Lie in the bed.’
In a story which ripples and eddies from pole-vaulting to salmon fishing, contemporary Irish history to myth, the tyranny of the school playground and a discussion of the impossibility of being both beautiful and a writer, books are ever-present, and they are celebrated here in a glorious novel whose richness of language, soft cadence and gentle rhythms are used to both highly comic and deeply touching effect.
‘There is no frigate like a book to take us away,’ wrote Emily Dickinson. Open this one and prepare to be transported.
Karen blogs at Cornflower Books.
Niall Williams, History of the Rain (Bloomsbury, 2014). 368 pages.
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