Monday Book: A promising family saga spoilt by a torrent of platitudes

History of the Rain, by Niall Williams, Bloomsbury, £18.99

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The Independent Culture

Do voracious readers make interesting protagonists? If his ninth novel is anything to go by, Niall Williams thinks they do. Ruth Swain rhapsodises about her favourite writers as she narrates History of the Rain from her sickbed, surrounded by thousands of books: “Great Expectations is the Greatest. If you don’t agree, stop here, go back and read it again.”

She quotes Emily Dickinson, William Faulkner and Seamus Heaney but Williams’ lyrical prose is reminiscent of Thomas Wolfe whose novels were famously hacked and compressed by his editors. The Irish author stops short of the American Modernist’s excesses but this Man Booker Prize long-listed novel is uneven and overlong.

As she lies “between this world and the next”, Ruth imagines her family history from her great grandfather’s narrow escape in the First World War to her life in contemporary Ireland. She’s intelligent and caustic and Williams’ imagery glimmers through the veil of constant rain. A salmon fisherman’s line “laying soft swished question marks in the air” is an elegant motif and some observations about village life ring true.   

Ruth’s grandparents’ austere times and her parents’ courtship are warmly dramatised. At school, Ruth and her twin brother lack the “human glue” that helps children mix but the way the Swains stick together through as much drama and misfortune as a family in a soap opera is saccharine. Barely a critical word is exchanged as drowning, fire, illness and penury befall them. The way that Ruth’s father, Virgil, a failed farmer and wannabe poet, is revered by his children and neighbours creates an idealised picture of a rural community.

Each generation is haunted by the family’s “Impossible Standard” and, for the Swains, failure is integral to living and writing. Williams describes beautifully “the secret life inside” but, by the time Ruth says that reading WB Yeats’ poetry makes “human beings become better, more complex, loving, passionate”, she’s become tiresome. Some of her generalisations are sentimental (“People here are good”), while others are intriguing (“We’re a race of elsewhere people”), but all underplay individuals’ capacity to think and act for themselves.

Ireland’s recession shadows Ruth’s story but Williams loses interest in it and, compared to the subtlety which writers such as Donal Ryan have brought to the subject, passing references to dispossession and emigration feel tokenistic. Ruth sounds more like a middle-aged author than a sick young woman as the novel climaxes in a torrent of platitudes. What began as an urgent, witty celebration of landscape, life and literature ends as a damp squib.

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