It’s no secret that I like depressing books—well written depressing books. I like books that get to the heart of the human matter—how we fail ourselves and others, silence our hearts, let a lure lure us. I love when a good book takes me into the hell of other people’s despicable choices and illuminates my own nature, holds up a mirror to myself. And, no small thing, when I accompany a character as they barrel into hell, I know I won’t have to stay there. When the book ends, I can leave. I can close the book on the final chapter and reach for a beer in the fridge or a chocolate bar in the cupboard or climb into clean sheets on the bed. But, if the depressing book is a good depressing book, I leave changed.
I rarely have the experience of reading a not-depressing book and feeling myself changed in some way. But that’s what happened when I read This Is Happiness by the Irish writer Niall Williams. From the first long sentence until the final heart-rending conclusion I was rapt—because of the language, the story, and the tender understanding of what it is to be a human trying. I couldn’t put it down. I read parts of it out loud. I copied pages and pages of it into what i am now calling my Commonplace Book (a term I just learned), I laughed, I yearned, I nodded, I felt hope. I appreciated the story perhaps more than anything else I’ve ever read. His language comes out like a song and his understanding of the human heart is tender and kind and clear.
The story is set in the small village of Faha in County Kerry, Ireland where the rain is constant and legendary. It never stops raining—except at page one of this story. It is 1958 and they are one of the last towns in Ireland to be “electrified.” “Electric men” come to town to get ready to set the poles and string the wires and flip the switch. But convincing a town to take such a bold move into the future is no small task. One of these “electric men” is Christy. He rents a bed in a loft in the tiny house of the Crowes and shares the loft with 17-year old Noel.
But Christy isn’t there just to string wires. He’s there to seek forgiveness for something he did 60 years ago. And that is the truly electrifying story, a story narrated by Noel as a man in his seventies looking back. Thinking about what happened when he was seventeen, he has this to say:
So compelling is the evidence of our own eyes and ears, so swift is your mind to assemble your own version of the story, that one of the hardest things in this world is to understand there’s another way of seeing things.
And in looking back, Noel comes to understand that what he saw then and what he sees now are two different stories.
His mother having died young, Noel lives with his grandparents, who he calls Doady and Ganga, who live in the soft worn glove of a long marriage. They still ride to church in a horse drawn cart, which Noel describes this way:
In her secret heart Doady may have yearned for the luxury and grandeur, but, if so, she had early squelched that girlish dream, pinched it out so that the chill and damp, the rattle and shake of the horse and cart on the Faha road did not make her regret her life.
In a particularly poignant scene, Noel and Christy head into town one night and hop from bar to bar looking for Junior Crehan, a legendary fiddler. They don’t find him, but in a particularly poignant scene, the two men find themselves in a bar with a few too many drinks in their bellies, and Christy begins to sing, breaking the unwritten rule that you do not sing in here. Here’s how that scene is described:
Not only was Christy singing, he was singing with screwed-up eyes and fists by his side a ballad about love. He was singing it full-throated and full-hearted and before he had reached the second verse it was clear even to Roo the dog that a passionate truth was present in that place. It wasn’t only that this didn’t happen in Craven’s, it was that there was something raw in it, something deeply felt, that was, even to those who had descended blinking into the umbrae and penumbrae of numberless bottles of stout, immediately apparent and made those who first looked now look away.
Christy is a quiet man and it’s hard for Noel to know what he’s thinking. He describes him this way:
He walked this line between the comic and the poignant, between the certainly doomed and the hopelessly hopeful. In time I came to think it the common ground of all humanity.
When Noel tells his story he tells not only the specific story of Christy, but also the story of us, of humankind.
In the course of trying to heft a pole up and into a rocky hole, Noel is badly injured. He’s taken care of at Dr. Troy’s surgery and stays the night, cared for my the doctor’s daughter, Sophie, who is studying to go to medical school. Noel is utterly smitten by Sophie. The description of his thoroughly lost heart is beautifully, painfully true:
Right then, more than anything, I want to be a better version of myself. I don’t want to be this stupid injured, I don’t want to be the failed priest with hands bound and weighted who tried with an idiot’s certainty to hold up a falling pole from Finland. I want to be a knight. I want to carry the Book of Virtues and be honorable and wise and kind and heroic and whatever handsome is, and because I am not, and know I cannot be, the pain sharp and true and all-consuming, because it is the pain of yourself.
Who can resist these words, this insight, that gentle plumbing of the human heart?
Christy is the source of the book’s title. In describing Christy, Noel recalls him this way:
I came to understand him to mean you could stop at, not all, but most of the moments in your life, stop for one heartbeat and, no matter what the state of your head or heart, say “this is happiness” because of the simple truth that you were alive to say it.
I can’t quote enough passages to do justice to this book. It’s beautiful. Every sentence is gorgeous. Every page. Every thought is honest. The entire story is true and sad and full of love and forgiveness and humanity. I can’t explain it. It’s the most human book I think I have every read. He doesn’t pound away at anything. He doesn’t draw attention to his lyrical writing. He just finds the music of your heart and in some odd way, you find yourself singing along.
Near the end he returns to a theme that lilts through the book: the whole idea of story and song. He says:
We all have to find a story to live by and live inside, or we couldn’t endure the certainty of suffering.
This book is perfection. I closed it, laid back on the couch, and cried, grateful to have read something that captures the beauty and difficulty of being alive.
You can buy This Is Happiness by Niall Williams at your local bookstore, get it at the library, or order it online at:
About Susan Edsall
Writing is how I make my way through the thicket of what we’ve made of this planet we’re on. It takes me a long time and lots of words. Social media mystifies me. How do so many people have so much to say, so quickly, and with such resolute certainty? Read more about Susan >