This Is Happiness by Niall Williams
Despite the age difference, the two become friends, cycling from pub to pub in the evenings in search of a renowned musician. A strong bond develops, albeit in the absence of personal disclosure on either man’s part. But we do discover that Christy is here on a mission to apologise to a woman he jilted fifty years before.
Unschooled in matters of love – and much else, apart from the Catholicism he’s recently renounced – Noel hopes for a happy ever after; Christy encourages him to give his doomed attraction to the doctor’s daughter everything he’s got. Meanwhile, the electricity poles – imported from Norway – are erected and the rain keeps away.
Narrated by Noel, looking back on his younger self, this is a slow-burn of a story, enlivened by the beautiful language and dry humour. Behind the times even in the 1950s, I detected a hint condescension in the portrayal of a simple life. But these aren’t simple people, and the predominant tone is of compassion and admiration of their stoic endurance and tolerance of each other’s foibles, even within the sometimes repressive culture of the Catholic Church.
I confess that I didn’t latch on to the themes of enlightenment and connection until the beautiful paragraph towards the end when the electricity is switched on. It’s a great symbol for a coming-of-age story, as Noel learns about life, love and himself. Particularly poignantly, alongside recognising the love between his grandparents, is how, in a friendship with a dying woman, he can begin to process his own mother’s death.
Thanks to Bloomsbury books for my review copy.
This Tilting World by Colette Fellous translated by
She’s also grieving for a friend, a fellow writer who’d swapped his pen for a boat and died on board. She grieves for her parents too, especially the father whom she imagines holding in her arms as a seven-month-old baby, perhaps because, as an anxious child, she felt responsible.
Like real reminiscence, hers emerges pell-mell with no regard for narrative arcs. It’s a ‘telly’ style I’ve encountered before in French translation; many love it, but I prefer to be ‘shown’ in a manner that lets me form my own opinions. There seemed too little distance between narrator and author (though there are also surprising gaps), as if the book were her own indulgence and not a gift to the reader. It felt like I’d chosen the wrong seat on a train, beside a woman determined to dump her thoughts on me with no interest in my own.
Thanks to publishers LesFugitives for my proof copy.
I’ve followed the electrification theme for this week’s 99-word story, which is set, not in Ireland, but an undefined still-underdeveloped part of the world. I’m not sure if artificial light is the greatest possible gift, but it certainly helps smooth out the inequalities I wrote about last time.
When I was small, the chores all done, I’d rest my head in my mother’s lap and watch the fireflies dancing, Grandfather’s stories music to my mind. But as I grew, the village shrank, the daylight hours too short for all I longed to learn. My teachers praised my intellect; they scolded me for homework half-done. Until I got the greatest gift: a lamp that caught the daytime sun and gave it back at night-time. Now I’m off to study in the city where neon never stops burning. When I’m trained, I’ll return as teacher to my classmates’ kids.