History of the Rain
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History of the Rain

4.7 4
by Niall Williams

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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.

So says Ruthie Swain. The bedridden daughter of a dead poet, home from college after a collapse (Something Amiss, the doctors say), she is trying to find

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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.

So says Ruthie Swain. The bedridden daughter of a dead poet, home from college after a collapse (Something Amiss, the doctors say), she is trying to find her father through stories—and through generations of family history in County Clare (the Swains have the written stories, from salmon-fishing journals to poems, and the maternal MacCarrolls have the oral) and through her own writing (with its Superabundance of Style). Ruthie turns also to the books her father left behind, his library transposed to her bedroom and stacked on the floor, which she pledges to work her way through while she's still living.

In her attic room, with the rain rushing down the windows, Ruthie writes Ireland, with its weather, its rivers, its lilts, and its lows. The stories she uncovers and recounts bring back to life multiple generations buried in this soil—and they might just bring her back into the world again, too.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Playwright, novelist, and nonfiction writer Williams’s (Four Letters of Love) new novel has a unique voice and a droll, comic tone that takes a surprising, serious turn. Ruthie Swain collapsed at college (“I have had Something Amiss, Something Puzzling, and We’re Not Sure Yet”), and is now confined to her bed at home in Ireland. Her father was a poet who left her an enormous quantity of books when he died, and she tries to find her way back to him through those books. Ruthie has a self-deprecating view of herself and the world, as well as a wry sense of humor. She uses literature to orient herself, searching for and creating connections in theory, while keeping the world around her, and the adoring Vincent Cunningham, at arm’s length. The novel’s “big secret” is obvious early on, and, therefore, the reveal is more of a relief than a surprise. One never buys that Ruthie is really sick—it comes across more as a Victorian lady’s psychosomatic problem than actual illness, even when the doctors sigh and shake their heads over blood work and send her to Dublin for treatment. The energy, tone, and premise of the book work well; the decision to view Ruthie’s experiences through the lens of literature pays off. And though the novel doesn’t have a strong resolution, Williams makes so many good stylistic and storytelling choices that his latest is well worth the read. (May)
From the Publisher

“A delicate and graceful love story that is also an exaltation of love itself . . . A luminously written, magical work of fiction . . . Four Letters of Love is formed with an unusual authority and grace, and it is filled with marvelous characters, large and small, all depicted with an understated veracity.” —Katharine Weber, The New York Times Book Review

“A two-time nominee for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, Niall Williams (Four Letters of Love) has written an incandescent novel about family, Ireland, and the magical power of stories.” —Shelf Talker, Shelf Awareness

“You can smell the peat burning and feel the ever-present mist in [this] luscious paean to all who lose themselves in books. Williams captures the awe and all of Ireland--its myths and mysteries, miseries and magic--through the pitch-perfect voice of a saucily defiant young woman who has witnessed too much tragedy but who clings devotedly to those she's lost.” —starred review, Booklist

“A rambling, soft-hearted Irish family saga stuffed with eccentricity, literature, anecdotes, mythology, humor, and heartbreak.” —Kirkus

“Destined to be a classic, Williams's seventh novel (after Boy and Man) isn't just the elegy Ruthie offers to the departed but also the love letter to reading and its life-giving powers. The author's voice and narrative remain utterly unique even as she invites comparisons to Jim Hawkins, Ishmael, and hosts of legendary literary narrators.” —starred review, Library Journal

History of the Rain is charming, wise and beautiful. It is a love letter to Ireland in all its contradictions, to literature and poetry and family. It acknowledges that faith itself is a paradox, both possible and necessary. And faith carries this novel--faith that stories can save us, that love endures, that acceptance is within reach, and finally, that it is possible to get to the other side of grief.” —Shelf Awareness

“While a wealth of impressions linger from this debut, two words come most often to mind in describing it: Spellbinding. Brilliant.” —starred review, Kirkus Reviews on FOUR LETTERS OF LOVE

“A compelling meditation on love, art and the vicissitudes of fate.” —San Francisco Chronicle on FOUR LETTERS OF LOVE

“Heart-rending and unforgettable.” —The Economist on ONLY SAY THE WORD

“God and Love and death can take care of themselves. A far greater mystery is the marvellous existence of a writer like Niall Williams . . . [He] really does write like an angel.” —The Guardian on AS IT IS IN HEAVEN

Kirkus Reviews
A rambling, soft-hearted Irish family saga stuffed with eccentricity, literature, anecdotes, mythology, humor and heartbreak, from the author of Four Letters of Love (1997)." There's nothing direct about us," says bedridden 19-year-old narrator Ruth Swain, speaking of the Irish, and the same is true of Williams' (John, 2008, etc.) convoluted, comically discursive latest, a shaggy dog story of a novel narrated in what Ruth calls The Meander style. (Ruth has a thing for Capital Letters.) A Smart Girl and briefly a student at Trinity College Dublin but now ill and confined to her room while rain constantly drizzles across the skylight, Ruth explains how the Swain family holds to the Philosophy of Impossible Standard: "No matter how hard you try you can't ever be good enough." Tracing this belief back through generations, she enumerates the caricaturish figures of her lineage in vaguely chronological order and with Dickensian flourishes. Tributes and references to books and writers crop up constantly. Voracious reader Ruth has inherited her father Virgil's library of 3,958 books and intends to read them all. Virgil was a poet, and his father wrote books about salmon fishing, extracts from which appear in the text. In among the family history, descriptions of the local community (Faha in County Clare) and detours, there's the thread of Ruth's golden twin brother, Aeney, whose unsurprising fate is central to Virgil losing his struggle with the Impossible Standard and to the cycle of water and writing, faith and hope with which the book concludes. Williams returns to home turf with a long, sentimental, affectionate poem to Irishness generally—"the best saints and the best poets and the best musicians and the world's worst bankers"—and one quirky family in particular that insists on being read at its own erratic pace.
Library Journal
★ 04/01/2014
In the tiny Irish village of Faha, college student Ruthie Swain lies in bed, immobilized by a mysterious illness and surrounded by her deceased father's books. She vows to read each one as she writes her family's story. Recollections of the people she has lost and their memories of people she's never known mingle with the adventures and ideas she retains from her reading. Ruthie reads and composes to remember and to tell the tales, particularly of her father, Virgil, and her nearly magical twin brother, Aengus. Their absence seems almost to pull Ruthie out of existence. But by summoning their tragic yet beautiful lives from memory, Ruthie reenters the realm of the living. VERDICT Destined to be a classic, Williams's seventh novel (after Boy and Man) isn't just the elegy Ruthie offers to the departed but also a love letter to reading and its life-giving powers. The author's voice and narrative remain utterly unique even as she invites comparisons to Jim Hawkins, Ishmael, and hosts of legendary literary narrators.—John G. Matthews, Washington State Univ. Libs., Pullman

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Product Details

Bloomsbury USA
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.30(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.30(d)

Read an Excerpt


A Novel

By Niall Williams


Copyright © 2014 Niall Williams
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-62040-647-2


The Salmon in Ireland


The longer my father lived in this world the more he knew there was another to come. It was not that he thought this world beyond saving, although in darkness I suppose there was some of that, but rather that he imagined there must be a finer one where God corrected His mistakes and men and women lived in the second draft of Creation and did not know despair. My father bore a burden of impossible ambition. He wanted all things to be better than they were, beginning with himself and ending with this world. Maybe this was because he was a poet. Maybe all poets are doomed to disappointment. Maybe it comes from too much dazzlement. I don't know yet. I don't know if time tarnishes or polishes a human soul or if it's true that it's better to look down than up.

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.

In Faha everyone is a long story.

You anything to the MacCarrolls over in Labasheeda?

To begin you must be traced into the landscape, your people and your place found. Until they are you are in the wrong story.

My mother is MacCarroll.

I was thinking that. But you are ...?

Swain. Ruth Swain.


We are our stories. The River Shannon passes below our house on its journey to the sea.

Come here, Ruthie, feel the pulse of the water, my father said, kneeling on the bank and dipping his hand, palm to current, then reaching up to take my hand in his. He put our arm into the cold river and at once it was pulled seaward like an oar. I was seven years old. I had a blue dress for summertime.

Here, Ruthie, feel.

His sleeve darkened and he rowed our arm back and let us be taken again, a little eddy of low sounds gargling as the throat of the river laughed realising what a peculiar thing was a father and his daughter.

When it comes to Clare, when it passes our house, the river knows it is nearly free.

I am plain Ruth Swain. See me, nineteen, narrow face, MacCarroll eyes, thin lips, dull hazelnut hair, gleamy Swain skin, pale untannable oddment, bony, book-lover, reader of so many nineteenth-century novels before the age of fifteen that I became exactly too clever by half, sufferer of Smart Girl Syndrome, possessor of opinions and good marks, student of pure English, Fresher, Trinity College Dublin, the poet's daughter. My History

My History in College: I came, collapsed, came home again. Home — hospital, home — hospital, the dingdong of me. I have had Something Amiss, Something Puzzling, and We're Not Sure Yet. I was Fine except for Falling Down. I have been Gone for Tests, Not Coming Right, Terrible Weak, Not Herself, and just A Bit Off, depending on the teller and whether loud or whisper, in Nolan's shop or on the windowsill of Prendergast's post office after Mass. For the record, I have never been Turning Yellow, never been complaining of the bowels, intestines or kidneys, never been spotted, swollen, palsied, never wetting, bleeding, oozing, nor, God-forgive-me, Bitch of the Brouders, raving. Mine is not the story. I am plain Ruth Swain, bedbound, here, attic room beneath the rain, in the margin, where the narrator should be, between this world and the next.

This is my father's story. I am writing it to find him. But to get to where you're going you have to first go backwards. That's directions in Ireland, it's also T. S. Eliot.

My father was named Virgil by his father who was named Abraham by his father who once upon a time was the Reverend Absalom Swain in Salisbury, Wiltshire. Who the Reverend's father was I have no clue, but sometimes when I'm on the blue tablets I take off into a game of extreme Who Do You Think You Are? and go Swain-centuries deep. I follow the trail in reverse, Reverends and Bishops, past the pulpit-thumpers, the bible-wavers, the sideburn and eyebrow-growers. I keep going, pass long-ago knights, crusaders and other assorted do-lallies, eventually going as far back as The Flood. Then in the final segment, ad-breaks over and voiceover dropped to a whisper, I trace all the way back to God Himself and say Who Do You Think You Are?

We are Swains. I read an essay once where the critic complained there was a distance from reality in Dickens's characters' names. He didn't know Dickens couldn't sleep. That he walked the graveyards at night. He didn't know Moses Pickwick was a coach-owner in Bath, or the church register at Chatham lists the Sowerberry family, undertakers, or that one Oliver Twiste was born in Salford, and a Mr Dorrett was confined in the Marshalsea prison when Dickens senior was there. I know, weird that I know that. But if you lie in bed all day with nothing but books you won't be Class One Normal yourself, and anyway Swains don't do Normal. Open the phonebook for County Clare. Turn to S. Run your finger down past Patrick Swabb the hurling chemist in Clarecastle and Fionnuala Swan who lives by the vanishing lake in Tubber, and before you get to Sweeney there we are. Between Sweeney and Swan we're the only entry, between the Bird King and the last daughter of Lir: Swain. The world is more outlandish than some people's imaginations.

My actual great-grandfather I never met, but because of him the Swain side of the family are what Nan Nonie calls Queer Fish. Out of the mists of my night-time unsleeping I sometimes see him, the Reverend. He too cannot sleep and walks away from a shadow church at marching pace, striking out past a graveyard where the headstones tilt like giant teeth and the stars are bared. He cannot get where he is going. His burden is an intense restlessness that will not let him lie down, and so while his lamb-wife Agnes sleeps on the very edge of their bed the Reverend walks the night. He walks twenty miles without pause. From him escapes a low murmuring hum that may be prayers. Hands behind his back, he is like a man with Business Elsewhere, and none of those he passes, lost souls, rumpled shades, dare delay him. He has the Swain jaw, the sharp up-jut, the grey beard-line that though he shaves twice daily remains like a half-mask he cannot take of. I see him, pacing out past the yew tree in the churchyard. What his business is, where he goes to meet it and how exactly it is transacted are all enfolded in the mystery of ancestors. He can only be followed so far. Above the tree I sometimes throw a fistful of stars, hang a crescent moon, but for my moon and stars the Reverend does not pause; he paces on into the dark, and then is gone.

Just a brief shiver of great-grandfather.

* * *

What the Reverend bequeaths to our story is the Swain Philosophy of Impossible Standard. In the year eighteen hundred and ninety-five he leaves it to his son at the christening, dipping the boy into the large cold name Abraham, and stepping back from the wailing, jutting the jaw. He wants his son to aspire. He wants him to outreach the ordinary and be a proof to God of the excellence of His Creation. That is how I think of it. The basis of the Philosophy of Impossible Standard is that no matter how hard you try you can't ever be good enough. The Standard raises as you do. You have to keep polishing your soul ahead of Entering the Presence. Something like that.

And Grandfather Abraham began polishing straight away. By age twelve, nineteen hundred and seven, he was a medal magnet. For Running, One Hundred Yards, Two Hundred Yards, Long Jump, Hop Step and Jump, Grandfather was your man.

Then he discovered the Pole-vault.

In St Bartholemew's School for Boys (established 1778, Headmaster, Thomas Tupping, a man notable for nothing but having eight too many teeth and lips that never touched) Abraham took the Reverend's restlessness to new heights, tearing down the runway with his lance and firing himself into the sky.

And that's where he arrives in my imagination, my mad grandfather, a blur-boy of white singlet and shorts, short sharp hair, blue eyes, charging like a knight towards an invisible enemy. There's no one watching. It's just him after school on a grey afternoon. Blackbirds have settled on the playing fields. The bounce of his stride echoes in the pole. It's not fibreglass but wood. The wind must think it's a mast and he a sail too small for lifting.

His pace quickens, his knees lift, the blackbirds turn. Down the cinderway he comes, crisp crunch-crunch-crunch, man on the end of a stick. Mouth pursed out and open he blows a wind-note with each step, whuu-whuu-whuu, announcing himself, warning the air that he is coming. His eyes are locked on the concrete trap. It's his entranceway. The pole lowers, wavers slightly. A hard clack is the last sound Grandfather hears on earth.

And here he is, Abraham in lift-off, his soul bubbling as he climbs, entering the upper air with perfect propulsion and ascension both. An instant and he no longer needs the pole. Hands it off. It falls to ground, a distant double-bounce off the solid world below. The blackbirds take fright, rise and glide to the goalmouth. Amazement blues my grandfather's eyes. He's at the apex of a triangle, a pale angular man-bird. His legs air-walk, his everything unearthed as he crosses the bar above us all. There is a giddy gulp of the Impossible and he sort of rolls over in the sky, pressed up against the iron clouds where God must be watching. His mind whites out. His body believes it is winged, has vaulted into some other way of being. Abraham Swain is Up There and Away, paddling the air above the ordinary and just for a moment praying: let me never fall to earth.


Excerpted from HISTORY OF THE RAIN by Niall Williams. Copyright © 2014 Niall Williams. Excerpted by permission of BLOOMSBURY.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

Niall Williams was born in Dublin and studied at University College Dublin. His work includes stage plays, screenplays, nonfiction (co-written with his wife, Christine Breen), and, to date, seven novels. His first novel, Four Letters of Love, was an international bestseller, published in more than twenty countries, and a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. Williams has been twice nominated for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and was shortlisted for the Irish Times Literature Prize. He lives in the west of Ireland.

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