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Review of Niall Williams “This Is Happiness”: when the rain stops in Faha

Paperback book This is Happiness by Niall Williams in front of an indoor plant (triostar stromanthe).

There has been a lot happening in my life of late. It has been difficult to juggle everything, including writing for this blog. Cancer has re-entered our family and I have a very dear and close loved one dealing with this awful disease. It has thrown me off balance and opened up some old wounds. In the time of covid, it has made everything harder – including cross border travel. It has reminded me to be humble and see the beauty in life and everything that it can offer. It has taught me to hug everyone I love a little longer and remind them of what they mean to me regularly. It has reminded me to never take life for granted and ultimately, there is a lot we can learn about living in dying.

With all that said, it felt like Niall Williams This is Happiness was the perfect book to review as I return from my blogging hiatus.

Williams novel is set in 1950s Faha, a fictional town set in County Clare, Ireland. Faha is on the cusp of change – electricity and phone lines encroach on family and rural life. It challenges the way people communicate and how they structure their lives. Williams seems to take the burgeoning electrification of the world and with it, ask us to evaluate how we share and communicate love, community values, and pastoral bliss.

Faha moves at a different pace than elsewhere. It seems to keep its own clocks and life is punctuated by church and the pub. The novel is predominately written from the perspective of Noe, a young man trying to figure out his life after he is sent to Faha to live with his grandparents after the death of his mother. Noe has rejected seminary school, for now, and also doesn’t attend church. His abstinence from church and therefore a significant part of the Faha community marks him as a somewhat outsider to the community. Although, it is through this separation that he is able to have a unique perspective on the relationships and community in this small rural town.

It was a condensed explanation, but I came to understand him to mean you could stop at, not all, but most of the moments of your life, stop for one heartbeat and, no matter what the state of your head or heart, say This is happiness, because of the simple truth that you were alive to say it.

This is Happiness – Niall williams p.283-4

When a telephone gets installed in Noe’s home, people line up to call loved ones from afar. However, the telephone calls are not really considered private. And indeed, many of the villagers feel that writing things down and sending letters is much more intimate and personal. It is interesting to look at this from a contemporary perspective as landlines dwindle and most people only have smartphones, there is (at least from younger generations) an aversion to phone calls. Most people would prefer to text or send emails rather than call. Although, many people cry that this is a sign of disconnection rather than connection. That phone calls, that thing we used to do with phones up until the 1990s, were the most intimate way to connect with people. I don’t really have an answer. As phone calls can remind us of the distance between us but are also better than non-connections at all.

Williams book starts with an uncanny change in weather – the rain stops. And with the clear blue skies that follow, new clarity and perspective fall over Faha, changing it forever. This book is a slow read. It forces you not to rush and savour every word. As always, share the reading love.

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