Goodness is a tidy bow you just can’t help wanting to pull loose.
‘The History of Rain’ is narrated by 19-year-old Ruth Swain, who we learn is confined to bed with an unidentified, but debilitating, blood disorder. Living her existence from her bedroom and an occasional hospital bed, and no longer able to actively participate in life in the community, she instead becomes its chronicler. Or, at least, the chronicler of her own convoluted family history: ” In families it’s hard to trace the story. If you’re in it the Plot Points aren’t clearly marked.”
Ruth’s world is a world of books and literature, and as a result all her points of reference are held within the things she has read (or seen in films) so, for example, when talking about chronology and storytelling she says:
“Think of any of your favourite characters, and then picture them in the time before they entered the story. They existed somewhere, in a World Before. Hamlet as a small boy. (Hamlet Begins in the Warner Brothers version.) Macbeth as a teenager. (Out of his pimples The Dark Prince Rises. Sorry, fecund.)
And anyway the story wasn’t ready for us yet. There are precedents. It’s ten chapters before Sam Weller appears in The Pickwick Papers (Book 124, Penguin Classics, London), nineteen before Sarah Gamp arrives in Martin Chuzzlewit (Book 800, Penguin Classics, London). “
It is through her father’s books that we come to know Ruth and through them how we then learn about four generations of her family: In particular we learn about the men – her great-grandfather, Reverend Swain, grandfather Abraham, and her father, Virgil, as well as the age long pursuit of the Swains’ Impossible Standard.
Religion, poetry, storytelling, fishing, potatoes, loss? It’s all here.
And I have to admit there were periods reading this book where it all seemed a bit too twee and sentimental and a bit too Irish cliché for me, but overall it manages to rise above these traits. Key to this is the engaging narrator that Williams has created in Ruth, and the humour he has instilled her with (the line about Hamlet and MacBeth above are perfect examples of this). It is because we like bookish Ruth that we allow ourselves to be submerged in her family story, and smile as she comments on Virgil Swain and Mary MacCarroll falling in love: ” So the truth is he didn’t fall in love either, he fell into Faith, which was onetime maybe the Champions League of Love until the sponsors pulled out and now it doesn’t get coverage anymore.” Or as she posits one of the best arguments against the existence of heaven, or at least why you wouldn’t want to be there, in modern fiction (using classic literature as an illustration): ‘There is no Heaven. How can there be? Think about it. For starters, if all the good people there have ever been are already there, how big would it have to be? Second, what a social nightmare. It’d be like all the good characters in all the books in the ultimate library of the world left their books, stepped out of their stories and were told just mingle. Anne Archer and Jim Hawkins, Ishmael and Emma Woodhouse. How mad would that be? Dorothea, say hello to Mr Dedalus. What could they possibly say to one another? It’d be excruciating.’
The further you progress the more your heart warms to the lives of the people in the small village of Faha on the banks of the Shannon river, and a narrator every bit as engaging as some of those classic heroine’s she references. But I’ll end this review with one final quote, which hopefully will also convey the lyrical skill that Williams’ also possesses as an author.
“I know what the river is like at night. I know how it tongues the dark and swallows the rain and how it never ever sleeps. I know how it sings in its chains, how steadily it backstrokes into eternity, how if you stand beside it in the deeps of its throat it seems to be saying, saying, saying, only what you cannot tell.”