History of the Rain by Niall Williams 2014

This novel begins with the narrator, Plain Ruth Swain searching for her father in stories from her family:  “We are our stories. We tell them to stay alive or keep alive those who only live now in the telling. That’s how it seems to me, being alive for a little while, the teller and the told.”  And what wonderful stories they are!

Ruth is 19 years old and confined to an attic room in rural Ireland by an undefined serious illness.  During the endless hours of reading and thinking in her confined space, she delves into family history to tell us of Absalom, her great grandfather, a Reverend who spent most of his life walking the fields and roads of western Ireland when he wasn’t preaching and saving souls.  Absalom also set ‘The Impossible Standard’ which his son and grandson would never be able to meet and which affected their lives in terrible ways.  Absalom’s son, Ruth’s grandfather, Abraham, was disowned by his father when he left Oxford to fight in WWI where he was seriously wounded, saved by a German soldier, and returned to Ireland where he married, fathered three daughters (The Aunts) and one son, Virgil, who was to become Ruth’s father.  Abraham abandoned the world to fish for salmon, and his son similarly abandoned the world to sail the seas before returning to Faha, a small village on the banks of the River Shannon in County Clare. There he met Ruth’s Mother, Mam, and fathered Ruth and her twin brother Aeney.  Along the way, Virgil accumulated 3958 books many of which Ruth references as she ponders life. Dickens and Emily Dickinson, Robert Louis Stevenson and Jane Austen, and many others people these pages as Ruth spins her tales.  The descriptions of her fellow villagers in Faha are worth the price of admission alone, e.g. Finbar Griffen wore the pained look of a man who had spent the day castrating bullocks, or was just the look of a man  married to Mrs. Griffen or “Noeleen Fry with the permanent scowl of a woman who couldn’t locate the bad smell in her kitchen and Eamon Dunne who had the original Bluetooth device, a Blue Tooth which when he smiled communicated only one thing, awesome disregard for the opinion of others.”   

The book is full of wonderful descriptions like these that often made me smile and occasionally laugh out loud, and it’s carried forward like a tidal wave by the story of Ruth and her family.  I was a bit disappointed in the ending which seemed like a curtain that fell too soon, but overall, this is a fine piece of fiction.