At times, the novel reads almost like an ethnographic study of a village on the cusp of change, calling to mind John Berger’s wonderful fictional trilogy “Into Their Labors,” set in the French Alps on the eve of industrialization. At the start of the novel, there’s only one phone outside the village limits, and it’s in Noe’s grandparents’ home. His grandmother ritualistically prepares stationery and blotting paper to write letters to relations from County Kerry to America. The book is full of both cheerful and fatalistic waiting, whether in line at church or for a letter to arrive or for the rain to stop (or start again). As 21st-century readers, we are invited to lower ourselves into a slower kind of time; we regularly leave the central characters frozen in mid-speech to take a peek at something else
The novel’s revolving parts harmoniously orbit each other to produce an exquisite, nuanced whole. One day, while Noe is helping Christy to erect the pylons, he collapses under the weight of a pole, “the pain so extravagant it produced in me a laugh”, and is knocked unconscious. Shortly after, Noe describes finding his mother on the kitchen floor after one of the many “falls” she suffered before her death. When his father tries to articulate what is happening to his wife, all he can manage is, “It’s like she’s been struck … by electricity”. In a single line of dialogue, Williams brings about the collision of his story’s elements.
The pleasure of this novel lies in its eye for detail. The plot, having been established, then takes a long time to do not very much more. What happens instead is a kind of tectonic movement from spring into summer, marked by the rhythms of village life. Williams is excellent on churchgoing, amateur dramatics, parking, the cinema. He lavishes close attention on his parishioners, and finds rich material there. He has a humorist’s eye, and his own fond amusement at the people he writes about shines out through the writing.
The fields of Ireland are very crowded, but by the conclusion of This Is Happiness, you feel Williams has justified adding another book to the herd.
Despite its saccharine title, which overdoes the novel’s sunny disposition, this is a worthy read. In the voices of Faha, an older Ireland is brought to life. This is likely to be a popular summer read, transporting us to a world with fewer problems than our own. It has the ease of listening to an elder tell a family legend or a piece of local gossip. As Noel tells us, “when you get to a grandfather’s age, life takes on the quality of comedy, with aches”.
Charming is one word for Williams’ prose. It is also life-affirming and written with a turn of phrase that makes the reader want to underline something on every page. I suggest we all buy his books, pushing him into that realm of globally fashionable Irish writers (which he might not care about), but more importantly, sharing with a vast audience his humane and poetic world view... This is not a book to read for fast-moving developments. It is one to savour, slowly, like the way of life it enshrines. The supporting cast is huge, eccentric, frequently funny.
Williams has the eye of a poet and the raconteur’s knack for finding a tale in the most unpromising nook of everyday life, as a now-adult Noel, summoning the Faha of his nostalgic imagination, narrates an elegiac novel that’s careful always to offset the antic rural eccentricity with darker notes of loss.