A very good friend of mine recently observed that I probably read more than most people do; I’ve been a serious reader of mostly fiction since my junior year in high school way back in the ’60s. So when I claim that Niall Williams’ new novel “This Is Happiness” is the most beautiful novel I’ve ever read, it has had serious competition. (The two most important novels I’ve ever read are “In Search of Lost Time”, by Marcel Proust, and “The Tale of Genji”, by Lady Murisaki Shikibu, and my all-time favorite writers include Iris Murdoch, Anita Brookner, Barbara Pym, Richard Ford, Ann Beattie, John Cheever, John Updike, John O’Hara).
“This Is Happiness” is admittedly an idyll of sorts; everything in it is filtered through the lens and haze of memory, of life in a small Irish village in County Kerry, the farthest Western county in Ireland (and, to me, the most beautiful place in the world). An ageing man, presumably the author, looks back on his teenaged years in this small village, before modernization, in the form of the electrification of the village, takes place, a world wherein Dublin, Ireland’s capital, seems eons away from the village. The narrator is a young man who’s just left the seminary after a year’s study; he has not yet “found” himself, but is living in this rural village with his grandparents, a wonderful old couple who’ve pretty much made their peace with one another over a long marriage (the grandmother’s practical, the grandfather’s a dreamer; they live quite on the margin economically, but live in a world of good friends, lots of history involving both place and people, a world much determined by the seasons (magnificently rendered by Williams: his descriptions of weather, of land, of rain/mist, of the occasional sunlight, are exquisite). I was quite taken with the idea that the novel itself takes place during a rare period of sunlight and good weather, which brings out the best in people). The Catholic Church still utterly dominates the social and cultural life of this village; Williams’ descriptions of the preparations for Easter are utterly riveting, sometimes funny; how this annual ritual brings the villagers and the Church together are sometimes breathtaking.
A stranger named Christy arrives at the grandparents’ cottage one day; he’s with the Bureau of Electrification, but he’s really returned to find his lost love, a woman whom he stood up at the altar fifty years ago; he boards with this family and his zest for life, his romantic sensibilities, make an enormous impact on the young narrator; in spite of nearly forty years’ age differences, the two men will drink together and celebrate the Irish folk music that appears in random pubs throughout the village’s reach and region. How Williams equates Irish song and Irish language is beautifully rendered and a kind of subplot of the novel. Singing in pubs has a way of modifying a long history of macho male behavior, and Williams maintains that the beauty of the land and the language and music are, we might now say, healthy feminizing influences on the men of this region. Christy has returned to try to redeem his jilting of his first love, and it’s not ‘til nearly the end of this gorgeous book that these two communicate only by (the brand new) telephone, as she is dying and he has a broken heart. Secondary and tertiary characters abound; they aren’t all eccentric in a satiric way, but the villagers are used to each others’ foibles and habits. The gossipy/nasty/ sometimes violent Ireland of Edna O’Brien does not appear in this novel, which, the author himself often states, is an idyll. (Perhaps city people romanticize small town life more than those who live there do).
The novel is also suffused with amazingly pithy observations about character, human nature, the past/the present; Williams’ novel is so full of wisdom that it will amaze the reader repeatedly with its wisdom; Williams’ observations about youth and age and love and pride and a wealth of other emotions lifts the book from romantic idyll to real brilliance; I have never underlined any novel as much as I did this one.
In a time when the dystopian novel has begun to dominate contemporary fiction, and wherein so much new fiction is about the horrors of the life of migrants, the lack of social justice in a country claiming same but failing to deliver, “This Is Happiness” seems to come out of the heavens, and reminds us that beauty is a human/spiritual need, and that beauty surrounds us in spite of the horrors of a collapsing liberal world order. Williams is at heart a poet, like the Irish writer Kevin Barry; if you want to read a novel that speaks directly to your spirit, read “This Is Happiness”, an astonishing book that makes life redemptive, a trait so much lacking in our current descent into chaos.