This Is Happiness400
This Is Happiness400
A profound and enchanting new novel from Booker Prize-longlisted author Niall Williams about the loves of our lives and the joys of reminiscing.
You don't see rain stop, but you sense it. You sense something has changed in the frequency you've been living and you hear the quietness you thought was silence get quieter still, and you raise your head so your eyes can make sense of what your ears have already told you, which at first is only: something has changed.
The rain is stopping. Nobody in the small, forgotten village of Faha remembers when it started; rain on the western seaboard was a condition of living. Nowjust as Father Coffey proclaims the coming of electricityit is stopping. Seventeen-year-old Noel Crowe is standing outside his grandparents' house shortly after the rain has stopped when he encounters Christy for the first time. Though he can't explain it, Noel knows right then: something has changed.
This is the story of all that was to follow: Christy's long-lost love and why he had come to Faha, Noel's own experiences falling in and out of love, and the endlessly postponed arrival of electricitya development that, once complete, would leave behind a world that had not changed for centuries.
Niall Williams' latest novel is an intricately observed portrait of a community, its idiosyncrasies and its traditions, its paradoxes and its inanities, its failures and its triumphs. Luminous and otherworldly, and yet anchored with deep-running roots into the earthy and the everyday, This Is Happiness is about stories as the very stuff of life: the ways they make the texture and matter of our world, and the ways they write and rewrite us.
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It had stopped raining.
Nobody in Faha could remember when it started. Rain there on the western seaboard was a condition of living. It came straight-down and sideways, frontwards, backwards and any other wards God could think of. It came in sweeps, in waves, sometimes in veils. It came dressed as drizzle, as mizzle, as mist, as showers, frequent and widespread, as a wet fog, as a damp day, a drop, a dreeping, and an out-and-out downpour. It came the fine day, the bright day, and the day promised dry. It came at any time of the day and night, and in all seasons, regardless of calendar and forecast, until in Faha your clothes were rain and your skin was rain and your house was rain with a fireplace. It came off the grey vastness of an Atlantic that threw itself against the land like a lover once spurned and resolved not to be so again. It came accompanied by seagulls and smells of salt and seaweed. It came with cold air and curtained light. It came like a judgement, or, in benign version, like a blessing God had forgotten he had left on. It came for a handkerchief of blue sky, came on westerlies, sometimes – why not? – on easterlies, came in clouds that broke their backs on the mountains in Kerry and fell into Clare, making mud the ground and blind the air. It came disguised as hail, as sleet, but never as snow. It came softly sometimes, tenderly sometimes, its spears turned to kisses, in rain that pretended it was not rain, that had come down to be closer to the fields whose green it loved and fostered, until it drowned them.
All of which, to attest to the one truth: in Faha, it rained.
But now, it had stopped.
Not that anyone in Faha noticed. First, because it happened just after three o'clock on Spy Wednesday and the parish was concertina'd inside the Men's Aisle, the Women's Aisle and the Long Aisle of the sinking church which at that time was still called St Cecelia's. Second, when the parishioners came outside their minds had been exalted by the Latin, and the suffering of Christ the Redeemer made inconsequential thoughts of anything else. And third, they and the rain had been married so long they no longer took notice of each other.
I myself am seventy-eight years and telling here of a time over six decades ago. I know it seems unlikely that Faha then might have been the place to learn how to live, but in my experience the likely is not in God's lexicon.
Now, that world, the one whose front doors were never closed in the daytime, whose back doors were never locked but unlatched and entered on an evening, where you stepped down, God bless, on to a flag floor into a cloud of turf and tobacco smoke, that one has perished. And though some of its people, like Michael Donnelly, Delia Considine, Mary Egan and Marty Brogan, have postponed the graveyard and are in lonely old houses out the country that are home to rheumatism and damp and the battle of the long afternoons, its doors are shielded by caution and fear of the corrosive nature of nostalgia. And because I'm antique myself now, aware that by the mercy of creation the soonest thing to evaporate in memory is hardship and rain, I understand that between then and now, as between mystery and meaning, there's maybe too great a gap, and in the world you're living, this one, the one where it stopped raining in Faha on the Wednesday of Holy Week, might be too far, too remote in time and manner for you to enter.
Bear with me awhile; grandfathers have few privileges and the knowledge of your own redundancy has a keen tooth.
A hundred books could not capture a single village. That's not a denigration, that's a testament. Faha was no more nor less than any other like place. If you could find it, you'd be on your way somewhere else. The country is filled with places of more blatant beauty. Good luck to them. Faha doesn't care. It long since accepted that by dint of personality and geography its destiny was to be a place passed over, and gently, wholly forgotten.
To the Fahaeans, the rain then, both implausible and prehistoric in that valley where the fields were in love with the river, was a thing largely ignored. That it had once started was already a fable, as too now would become the stopping.
The known world was not so circumscribed then nor knowledge equated with facts. Story was a kind of human binding. I can't explain it any better than that. There was telling everywhere. Because there were fewer sources of where to find out anything, there was more listening. A few did still speak of the rain, stood at gates in a drizzle, looked into the sky, made predictions inexact and individual, as if they were still versed in bird, berry or water language, and for the most part people indulged them, listened as if to a story, nodded, said Is that so? and went away believing not a word, but to pass the story like a human currency to someone else.
The church at that time was not what it is or where it is now. Once Tom Joyce, sacristan, crossed the street in suit and waistcoat, climbed the twenty-seven steps of the belfry to ring what was still an actual bell, a bell blessed by the Bishop and heard in the seven townlands of the parish, people just walked out of their houses and went, the sinners as well as the saints. All routes into the village ran busy with bicycles, horses, carts, tractors and walkers. The roads out the country were not tarred yet, some not even gravelled. The one outside my grandparents' house was mud, tramped hard and soft and hard and soft again, it was foot- and wheel- and hoof-made and bowed upwards in its centre like a spine along which pulsed the townland, passing the open doors, and in that passing picking up and dropping off those pieces of news by which a place is made vital.
And so, for an hour before Mass, there was human traffic of all kinds. You stood outside the door and looked west and what you saw were heads, scarfed, capped or hatted, floating like hosts above the hedgerows. In the fields the cattle, made slow-witted by the rain, lifted their rapt and empty faces, heavy loops of spittle hanging, as though they ate watery light. The human procession, on foot, bicycle and cart, would gradually dwindle – the clack of horseshoes outliving the actual horse by several minutes – but finally it too was swallowed into the green hush. By the time Sam Cregg, whose clock ran slow, in fact and metaphor, passed in the long commandant coat and jodhpurs his brother the General had sent from Burma, the introit would have begun. All roads into the parish fell into an absolute quiet.
Faha then had more to it too than it does now. The shops were small but there were more of them, grocers, butchers, hardware, draper, chemist and undertakers, each implacably marked by the character of their owners. You shopped by blood and tribe. If you were related, however thinly, to Clohessy, or Burke, who both sold the same tea, flour and sugar, the same three vegetables and tins of imperishable foodstuffs, that's where you did your business. You didn't darken the door of the other. One of the privileges of living in a place forgotten is the preservation of individuality. In Faha, because the centre was distant and largely unknown, eccentric was the norm.
As decreed by mulishness, recalcitrance and tradition, the men gathered before Mass along the two windowsills of Prendergast's post office across from the church gates, with latecomers settling for the sloping one of Gaffney's Chemist. Faha's version of the Praetorian Guard, the men wore suits of brown and grey and hats or caps but no raincoats though the rain would have already saddled their shoulders and made necessary the stratagem of smoking their cigarettes backwards, inside the cup of the hand. They were men from out the townlands whose character was made crystalline by solitude. That they were going to attend church was not in doubt, but because of the thorny relation of religion to the masculine they would show no eagerness and shielded off any sense of the spiritual with a studied casualness and a mastery of the essential art of saying nothing.
People in Faha hadn't got the hang of parking yet. That Holy Week it was still five years before the introduction of the driving test, and another three before anyone in Faha would attempt to pass it. There were only ten cars in the parish. The drivers didn't mind if they just landed in the general vicinity of where they were headed, let out the children and the old people and the neighbours who had God-blessed the car when they got in and God-blessed the driver when they got out. If, like Pat Healy's, the car stuck halfway out and nothing could pass up or down where the street turned with hopeless yearning towards the grey tongue of the river, what matter, they were going to church, let the heathens be damned.
* * *
Like those in the Ark, there was an unwritten order to how the parishioners came into St Cecelia's and where they sat. Because they were the same people who came each week, strangers and foreigners being then virtually unknown, you could close your eyes and know that Matthew Leary, first in and last out, was prostrate in the front pew, pate lowered, prayer-hands clasped out in front of him, the weight of his sins imponderable and awesome; that Mick Madigan didn't enter but for reasons unknown stood just outside the church doors in the rain; that though she had come that morning from a house you'd see in a famine museum the small upright pillar of Mary Falsey was at the very front of the Women's Aisle, her husband Pat sniffling with permanent headcold at the back of the Men's. You knew that Mrs Pender, who kept the cleanest house in the parish (her Sean now dust), sat with seven dangling Penders beside Kathleen Connor who was already thrice anointed, but would not depart for Heaven, it was said, until she knew her husband Tom was in the other place; that midway up the Long Aisle were the Cotter family, beautiful people, behind them the Murrihys, who all took the road to ruin and made few stops along the way, longside or near enough them the Fureys, Sean the scholar who would die for love, overside, one proud pew (God bless the work) worth of McInerneys, one huddled abashed but no less seedful one of Morrisseys, each born in April nine months after the hay-making and each with something of summer in their natures. Some ways down the Long Aisle on the left the Liddys, Bridget and Jerome, with ten children who spent their nights in three beds trying to kill each other, and in the daytime had the look of it. Near enough them, any number of Clancys, whose childhoods tasted of tears. Across from them, the Laceys, the four girls disguising their lameness from wearing hand-me-down shoes they had outgrown but which would not be replaced until Christmas. Behind them, Mick Boylan, who suffered from an incurable affliction called Maureen. Two pews from the front, Mona Clohessy, who, when he needed extra help in the shop, Tom had brought back as his wife from some prosperous farm up the country. Tom was no fool. Mona could sell toys to China. Behind Mona, Mina, a gaud. The Collinses, the Kings, Devitts, Davitts and Dooleys, Johnny Mac who had the kind of ugliness irresistible to Hegartys, Thomas Dineen a fine fiddle player, and in fact the Dineens were that mystical thing, a musical family, and any of them could pick up an instrument and draw a tune from it.
Midways back, not too close to the saints at the front, or the sinners at the back, sat Doctor Troy and his three swans of daughters, looking as if they hadn't come in the door but had landed from another dimension where human beings got closer to beauty than they did in Faha. Perhaps by virtue of distant-breeding, dress, deportment, or the mystical numerology that decreed three the number of the divine, their presence alone was enough to trigger the silent ripples of a natural disturbance. Attraction is opaque and puzzling as an onion, but it's fair to say that in the parish of Faha the beauty of those girls provoked a torment, to which I was not alone in being defenceless.
I will say nothing more of the Troy sisters here, you'll meet them soon enough, but I'm gladdened to say that even now, inside this ancient chest, my heart still stirs at the mention of their name.
The Women's Aisle I can picture less easily. But bear with me. While all the men were unhatted, all the women had their heads covered, a throwback maybe to Bathsheba. Some women took the head-covering rule as an invitation to display, most notably Mrs Sexton who had a line in outlandish hats, one creation a kind of exotic wonderland with a hill of artificial flowers that were an Indies atop her, complete with tiny green hummingbird, and required significant mastery of equipoise as she came to the altar-rail.
* * *
Someone has said religion lasted longer in Ireland because we were an imaginative people, and so could most vividly picture the fires of hell. And perhaps that's true. But despite all that would in time transpire and need to be rewritten in the record of the Church, it was part of the order of the world then and in ceremony and ritual had its own loveliness too. That Holy Week, St Cecelia's was dressed with flowers. The four-foot, more-or-less matching statues of Saints Peter and Paul, along with the hooded one of Saint Senan, and the one that was dubbed Saint Cecelia, had each had their faces painted for Easter and their chips mended. A fine musician on the concertina, Mrs Reidy put aside the jigs and reels, furrowed her brows and played the organ with a graven solemnity.
Father Coffey, the curate, was young then, and in vocational love with his new parish. Pale and thin as a Communion wafer, he was addicted to the Wilkinson Sword and shaved to the blood vessels. He had the raw look of a trainee saint and the glossy eyes of those in combat with their own blood. But he lived within the inviolate privacies of the priesthood then, so no one in Faha ever questioned or considered his welfare. Empurpled with the primacy of Easter, he was alone on the altar that afternoon. Father Tom, the PP, who had succeeded the devil when he went by the name Canon Sully, was a man beloved in the parish. He had heard the confessions of every soul for forty years and was exhausted from absolution. From storing inside himself the sins of the congregation, he was suffering one of his regular chest infections.
To give young Father Coffey his due, that man would serve in the parish fifty-one years, confound the common narrative by doing more than one man's share of good, twice refusing edicts to be transferred, silently suffering what sanctions came from the Palace so that he could stay faithful to Faha, where in later years, unretired long after retirement age, white wires growing out his ears, a congregation of four souls for daily Mass that he'd say in his socks, two unresolved Morton's neuromae making shoes intolerable, he'd be robbed so often he'd take to leaving the key in the front door of the Parochial House, some coins and food on the table, until they took that table too.
That Spy Wednesday then, Father Coffey, his back to the congregation, closed his eyes and chinned the air. From the base of his throat he urged a plangent Te Deum to ascend, not yet knowing that as he did the heavens above cleared.
I was not in St Cecelia's that afternoon. I was seventeen. I had come down from Dublin on the train, not exactly in disgrace – my grandparents, Doady and Ganga, were too contrary and crafty for that – but certainly distant from grace, if grace is the condition of living your time at ease on the earth.
What I was like then is hard to capture, the Crowe-ness in me manifest mostly in self-contradiction, my character an uneven construct that swung between flashes of fixedness and rashness, immovability and leap. One such had landed me in a briary boarding school in Tipperary. Another had put me down in the thorny austerity of a seminary, and another out of there when I woke one night with a fear I couldn't name, but later came to think of as the fear I might not discover what it meant to live a fully human life.
I'm not sure what I thought that was at the time, but I had enough sense to know there was a lack, and somehow that was to be feared. If it is true that each of us is born with a natural love of the world, then the action of my childhood and schooling had been to vanquish it. I was too afraid of the world to love it.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "This Is Happiness"
Copyright © 2019 Niall Williams.
Excerpted by permission of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
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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