THE term “feel-good” is over-used, and can be shorthand for “sentimental”. So, while I won’t say that This is Happiness is a feel-good novel, it certainly makes me feel good. Very good. It is about as tender, and funny, and humane as a book can be. Niall Williams loves his characters, and is consequently forgiving: more amused than irked by their failings, and warmed by their quirks. And that makes me love them, too.
Essentially, This is Happiness is the coming-of-age story of 17-year-old Noel (“Noe”) Crowe, who has landed in the fictional village of Faha in County Clare, Ireland. There’s nothing special about the village. “If you could find it, you’d be on your way to somewhere else.” Noe, the novel’s narrator, now 78, relates the story of his younger self, and recognises that the village’s very lack of significance is a kind of virtue: “I know it seems unlikely that Faha then might have been the place to learn how to live, but in my experience the likely is not in God’s lexicon.”
Noe had arrived in the village to stay with his grandmother Doady and grandfather Ganga. He was on a kind of furlough, after the lingering death of his mother, and his (not unrelated) decision to take leave of the seminary where he was training for the priesthood. His father had retreated into work, leaving the motherless and faithless teenager “in a profound loneliness”, in a world that he was too afraid of to love.
His grief, his uncertainty, and his raw youth were wrapped in a warm blanket of acceptance by his grandparents. Ganga, “a short and almost perfectly round man with eyes always near to laughter and tufted hair that sat like a small wig on a football”. Doady “had a narrow whiskered chin and a brownish complexion — her mother was a pipe-smoker from Kerry and had puffed out seven umber babies no bigger than smoke rings. She had a fierce attachment to fresh air.”
Faha in the 1950s, when this story is set, was rooted in the people, the rhythms, and the traditions of the past, dominated by an authoritarian Church. But its steady antiquity was about to be revolutionised, because “the electric” was heading its way. And the locals were not sure that they wanted it or merited it. “This [unworthiness] had been ingrained by the Church from birth. With pure Aristotelian logic, the bishops understood that making people feel lesser was a way of making the Almighty mightier. . . if there was something good out there, we probably didn’t deserve it, was the basic position.”
© Chi-pa Choi/AlamyThe limestone hills near Ballyvaughan, County Clare, on the west coast of Ireland
In Noe’s life this new, charged, force was embodied by the unannounced arrival of the 60-something Christy, who came to sell the idea of electricity to the villagers, and — in need of lodging — shared an attic bedroom with Noe. “Everybody carries a world,” Noe reflected. “But certain people change the air about them.”
It was as if Christy changed the weather, too. Rain here was “a condition of living. . . In Faha your clothes were rain and your skin was rain and your house was rain with a fireplace.” But that Easter it stopped.
In that meteorological interlude, and Noe’s spiritual void, “when you can find no answer to the question of what you’re supposed to do with the life you’ve been given”, Christy brought his travel-worn luggage of adventure, risk, love, loss, and an appetite for life. His stories stirred in Noe a romance for what could be.
In this unlikely bromance, we discover that Christy’s life is haunted by regret, and that Noe has lessons to learn about how to find healing for himself and others. And — in the couple’s drink-fuelled night-time search in pubs and bars for an almost legendary fiddle player, Junior Crehan — Noe discovered in Irish music a means of expression beyond his own stumbling language: something that accommodated “ecstasy and rapture and lightness and fun as well as sadness and darkness and loss, and that in its rhythms and repetitions was the trace history of humanity thereabouts”.
Noe’s sojourn in Faha revealed to him what it might be to be fully alive.
Williams’s writing is soulful and poetic, but it’s a natural lyricism that springs from the people and their places. It isn’t engineered by artifice or pretension: it’s distilled, steeped, and slips down like Irish whiskey. But his observations are also funny — hilarious, even: “Rushe had a face on him like a wasp in October.”
While the ageing Noe, reflecting on his past, is unforgiving in his judgements on the institutional Church, he is perceptive and understanding about the internal plumbing of faith and doubt. The young Noe feels the space left by his unbelief: “There’s a spirit-wound to a Sunday. You can patch it, but it’s there.”
The older Noe held on to a spiritual reality: “You live long enough you understand that prayers can be answered on a different frequency than the one you were listening for.” This went back to Faha, when his teenage self found himself alone in a deserted church, looked upwards, and simply announced, “It’s me.”
This is Happiness is a profound, delightful novel, the best I’ve read this year. It has the lilt and cadence of the Irish folk tradition: sad music that makes you glad.
The Revd Malcolm Doney is a writer, broadcaster, and Anglican priest.
This is Happiness by Niall Williams is published by Bloomsbury at £8.99 (Church Times Bookshop £8.09); 978-1-526-60935-9.
Read an interview with Niall Williams here.
THIS IS HAPPINESS — SOME QUESTIONS
- “You can’t correct the mistakes of a lifetime.” What does the novel suggest about the possibility of atonement? Does Christy achieve it?
- “People [. . .] lived then in the weather, and were of it.” How does weather shape in the lives of those in Faha?
- “I’m working on life as a rise to grace after a fall.” How do falls feature in the novel?
- “The truth turns into a story when it grows old.” What does Noe mean by this?
- “The youth they were passes through their eyes.” How are the complexities of old age presented in the novel?
- “And so, for an hour before Mass, there was human traffic of all kinds.” Is the relationship with the Church described in Faha lost today, or just different?
- “Doing the Christian thing, I was to realise, was maybe only achieved by Christ.” What does this mean in the context of the novel? Do you agree?
- The title of the novel is This Is Happiness. To what does the title refer, for you?
- Is the arrival of electricity a gain or a loss for Faha, in your opinion? Why?
- Why does Noe feel he cannot take communion towards the end of the novel? What is the significance of Father Coffey’s reaction?
IN OUR next reading-groups page on 1 October, we will print extra information about our next book, Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell. It is published by Tinder Press at £8.99 (£8.09); 978-1-4722-2382-1.
Winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction (2020), Hamnet tells a fictional story of the life and early death of Shakespeare’s only son, and the impact of his death on those around him. More particularly, it tells of the experiences of his mother, Agnes, through her love story with a Latin tutor and playwright, her journey into marriage and motherhood, and her grief at the loss of her child to the bubonic plague. Through the story, O’Farrell deftly explores the England of the Elizabethan era, and the part played by a woman in it. William Shakespeare himself appears only rarely, and is never named.
The novelist, memoirist, and journalist Maggie O’Farrell was born in Coleraine, Northern Ireland, in 1972. After moving from Ireland at the age of two, she grew up in Wales and Scotland and read English Literature at New Hall, Cambridge. She contracted encephalitis at the age of eight, and missed nearly a year of school. In addition to her writing, she has worked variously as a teacher, arts administrator, cleaner, and cycle courier. A multi-award-winning author, O’Farrell was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 2021. She is married to the novelist William Sutcliffe, and has three children.
BOOKS FOR THE NEXT TWO MONTHS
November: Personal Pleasures: Essays on enjoying life by Rose Macaulay
December: Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers