In his first novel since the Booker Prize-nominated “History of the Rain,” Niall Williams balances carefully between nostalgia and clear-eyed realism. “This Is Happiness” recounts the long-delayed installation of electricity in the Irish village of Faha from the vantage point of 78-year-old Noel Crowe, who looks back on his 17-year-old self and his family’s native village, both on the brink of change in the late 1950s.
Noe, as everyone calls him, has lost his faith and left the seminary where he was training for the priesthood. He can’t stay home in Dublin with his father, unreachable since the recent death of Noe’s mother, so he goes to visit his grandparents in Faha. Noe was sent there often during his mother’s grim 10-year decline. “Each time I came to Faha I found it smaller and poorer,” he says, but “the sense of it as a place of escape endured.” Ganga, Noe’s cheerfully dreamy grandfather, and Doady, his dour, pragmatic grandmother, are among the vivid character sketches abounding in “This Is Happiness,” a portrait of a community as well as a coming-of-age tale.
Jumbling chronology and interjecting retrospective opinions as everyone does when remembering the past, Noe warmly evokes a village immersed in the timeless rhythms of nature and the rituals of the Catholic Church, counterpointed by blunt depictions of the bone-deep fatalism of people who know that outsiders view them as backward, people who themselves think, “If there was something good out there, we probably didn’t deserve it.” Fahaeans are even unnerved by a spell of uncharacteristically warm, sunny weather; it might seem a welcome respite from the region’s nearly nonstop rain, but instead, after a mere 10 days, “there were silent prayers that the Lord take his blessing elsewhere for a while.” It’s not just that they need rain to water their fields and their cattle; all that good weather seems somehow … wrong.
Not to Christy, a newly hired representative of the Electricity Supply Board who arrives on the day the rain stops. “My God, the stars,” he sighs on his first, crystal-clear night; his comment precedes one of Williams’s characteristically gorgeous flights of lyrical description. Lodged with Ganga and Doady, Christy takes Noe under his wing, enthralling the boy with stories of his travels around a world so much bigger than the narrow lanes of Faha or the gray offices of his father’s Dublin. When he learns that Christy’s real purpose in Faha is to find and beg forgiveness of Annie Mooney, the woman he left at the altar decades ago, Noe takes it upon himself to inform widowed Annie Mooney Gaffney of Christy’s intentions. “From the readings of melodramatic novels, words of ballads, and the things your mind makes up when it has no real knowledge of human beings, I had imagined all outcomes,” he recalls. “But I lost them all in the face of this actual woman and what she said next.”
Annie’s unexpected response is one of several developments that begin to strip Noe of his romantic fantasies. The odyssey of her eventual reconciliation with Christy — not the happy event the boy expected — is recounted in elegiac, gently sad tones; Williams adds another emotional shade with a wincingly comic account of Noe falling headlong in love with a doctor’s daughter, only to find himself necking in a movie theater with her older sister, then finally deciding that actually he loves all three sisters. Meanwhile, poles to carry electric lines are planted in “fields where nothing had changed in a thousand years,” and condescending electricians make it clear to the locals that their homes are sadly inadequate to the demands of wiring for light.
Pushback from Ganga doesn’t halt Faha’s hesitant march toward the future, but it does assert that there are values other than modernity. Throughout the novel, as the older Noe reflects on those long-ago days, he acknowledges that change was inevitable and in many cases for the best. (Several quiet asides make it clear he welcomes the diminution of the Church’s punitive moral authority.) Yet Noe lovingly recalls a community nourished by ancient traditions of storytelling and music-making: stories like his grandfather’s, “quick-spoke and eye-popping and miraculous … a running narration that attempted … to get the listener across the gap into the skin of another”; music like the Irish reels Noe loves to play, “making this sound map … so listener and player are taken away and time and space are defeated.” These arts are not luxuries but instruments of connection and affirmation that have sustained the village during centuries of hardship. Noe takes the fiddle Ganga gave him when he leaves Faha, knowing that “music and story would be a part of what I would be.”
This declaration of continuity does not make up for the sorrows frankly depicted in Noe’s narrative. Sorrow and joy are inextricably intertwined in life, he comes to accept, as he comes to understand Christy’s seemingly inexplicable declaration, “This is happiness,” at a moment when there seems little to be happy about. Christy’s happiness is the kind found in the music Noe loves: “accommodating expression of ecstasy and rapture and lightness and fun as well as sadness and darkness and loss … the trace history of humanity.” Noe’s musings may occasionally dip into sentimentality, but it’s honest sentiment honestly acquired from his embrace of the full spectrum of human experience — a lesson he learned during the transformative months eloquently captured in Niall Williams’s tender, touching novel.
THIS IS HAPPINESS
By Niall Williams
Bloomsbury, 380 pp., $28
Wendy Smith, a contributing editor at The American Scholar and Publishers Weekly, reviews books for The Washington Post and was a finalist for the 2018 National Book Critics Circle’s citation for excellence in reviewing.