Sometimes the best works of fiction are uncategorizable. There are some readers, for example, who would shelve Niall Williams's As It Is in Heaven squarely in the romance section, while others would just as certainly place this follow-up to Four Letters of Love next to the works of the best magical realists. The proverbial "they" might consider devising a new category for books like this one: Call it Something for Everyone, the shelf that would hold those all-too-rare novels that combine touching romance, spirituality, and magic with good, old-fashioned storytelling.
As It Is in Heaven is the tale of 28-year-old Stephen Griffin, a schoolteacher who lives with his ailing father, Philip, in County Clare, Ireland. Diffident, insecure men whose lives have been hobbled by the early death of Stephen's mother, the two live in a kind of self-protective cocoon and let life pass them by. Then Philip's doctor confirms what he himself has long suspected: He has cancer and will soon die. In the first of a series of magical "deals" with God, Philip buys time so that he can live to see his son happy and cared for.
Meanwhile, Stephen happens upon a visiting orchestra and falls madly, irrationally in love with an Italian violinist named Gabriella Castoldi. Far more sophisticated and worldly than he, Gabriella seems an unlikely participant in the great romance Stephen imagines...and yet spiritual and metaphysical forces conspire to bring the two together. Their ensuing relationship is complicated, tempestuous, and ultimately profound.
It's a romantic, movingstory,but one that might seem rather ordinary were it not for Williams's lilting prose and the kind of deference to magic and coincidence that characterized some of the early works of Alice Hoffman. Take, for instance, the scene in which Stephen walks along the sea and realizes that Gabriella will, in fact, come to him, just as surely as his father will slip away. "Clouds blacked the stars. The sea was in the air and spat saltily at the back of the house, but Stephen did not care and walked down to where the land fell away to the rocks and the waves. His heart was racing. He felt as if, out of the infinite vastness of the unknown, a hand had reached for him, and he had been given new grace." Or this moment of reflection "It was a micro-season of happiness, a blissed-out moment of abandoned candlelight, and Stephen Griffin could sit at the table in the brief pleasure of knowing: This is joy, this is the richness of things, the brimming sense of the impossible becoming real." The brief chapter in which Stephen flies to Venice in search of the fleeing Gabriella will put a reader in mind of the old Truffaut film "The Story of Adele H." Half mad with desire and obsession, after ten days of searching, of saying "her name at shops and fish stalls...and damp candlelit churches," Stephen almost dies of pain and disappointment.
But there's more going on here than simple romance, thanks in part to the cast of charmingly offbeat characters who inhabit this colorful Irish town. In addition to Philip, who is the kind of father Frank McCourt could only have dreamed about, there is Nelly Grant, the greengrocer, and Moses Mooney, a blind musician, who has sensed that love is coming. The jealous administrator at Stephen's school is the closest this book comes to an "evil" character, although her disapproval of Stephen clearly stems less from meanness than from jealousy that Stephen may in fact get what everyone wants (i.e., a great love). These are simple, down-home characters, but they take on a poetic importance. Add to that Williams's tendency to write homiletic metaphors Philip, for example, is a tailor, and so Williams sees his life in tailor's terms: "Philip made a few short tugs, as if teasing the cloth for weakness, the way life does a man" and you begin to get an idea of why this book will have widespread appeal. Of course, there are probably some readers who will find Williams's novel a tad on the hokey side, what with his tendency toward fortuitous coincidence and the fact that people not in physical proximity tend to "speak" to each other, but those readers miss the point: As It Is in Heaven should be read as a parable. Like a great gothic love story, albeit one with more fully drawn characters, it is less about a specific romance than about emotion in general huge, sweeping emotion in a series of dramatic locations. It may not have the bleakness of vision, the portentousness that characterizes the great Irish writing of this century, but As It Is in Heaven is as much a tale of love and loss as anything James Joyce ever wrote. And one thing's for sure: It's a whole lot more crowd-pleasing.