History of the Rain
by Niall Williams
2014/ 368 pages
read by Jennifer McGrath 11h 29m
rating – 8 / Irish humor – fiction
This is a story about tales, folk tales, biographical tales, literary tales, make-believe tales and historical tales, etc. There’s some realism and some magical realism here, there are jokes and tall tales. It’s kind of lovely in a ways, but I had to get in about 100 pages to appreciate it.
Actually, I got started and I listened and listened and finally realized that this was probably a really excellent book which was going straight through my ears. So at about half way, I restarted the whole thing. – There’s something going on here about salmon and fishing and water and Ireland and so on that just wasn’t clicking – in all likelihood because I’m not the least bit Irish.
On the surface History of the Rain is the story of Ruth Swain and the many stories she tells. In the current time, Ruth is a bedridden 19-year old who is seeking Virgil Swain, her deceased poet-father, via the thousands of books he left when he died. But to get what she really wants, to comprehend his essence or something, she has to go back to his father’s father, Abraham Swain, a classics-reading, salmon-fishing and story-telling Reverend who did write a book – on salmon fishing. So Ruth is relating her sad (pathetic, really) family history in a very Irish and very humorous way.
Fwiw, my not being Irish may be part of my problem as this is a love story to Irish story-tellers and literature in general on top of which an Irish brogue is not easily decipherable by me. There’s really too much humor – it goes on and on – everything is a joke or told with whimsy. Very tiring.
The Swain family has lived by the river Shannon, in Faha, County Clare since her grandfather Abraham landed there from England. She discloses to us that it seems “everyone is a long story” and she proceeds to tell us the stories of her grandfather, her father Virgil, and herself – also of her mother, grandmother, some folks around the neighborhood, some literary figures as well as Bible stories, stories of Irish saints and old Irish mythology and folk and fairy tales and even old salmon-boy stories – and then there was the time of 800 years of rain, the stubbornness of the Irish along with the talents of the fair green and wet land’s poets and musicians. But that’s not mentioning Pythagoras who was first a cucumber and later a salmon. (I suspect a number of the stories are grounded in some kind of authenticity.)
So our very brightly creative and supposedly hilarious literature major and wanna-be writer protagonist is stuck in a huge old bed at home reading all manner of fiction and nonfiction due to a rare blood disease. Yes, Dear Reader, it’s “in her blood” And as she lies there she remembers and imagines and talks to a couple friends or her deceased twin, Aeney, while writing her book but, – “I’m not writing a book, I’m writing a river,” she tells a friend. And she digresses some because she’s “… writing a river – and it’s flowing away.”
And we finally get to the story of Ruth’s father who is a rather bumbling intellectual trying to eke a living off a small plot of land and failing miserably. He’s not a farmer or a fixer of things. He’s a thinker, a reader, a story-teller and a poet although no one has seen his poetry because they’re “not ready.” But he swims in the river like a fish and he’s very loving and hopelessly blames himself for everything.
Water, especially rain and rivers, and salmon are hugely important for some reason. “Everything is connected” – by what – water – Ireland? So we should all learn to swim in the heavily referenced literary waters of literature (mostly English?). I guess it would probably be helpful for understanding.
“…the heavy waters of literature” because there seems to be nothing which doesn’t remind Ruth of something she’s read – characters in her life are like characters from Dickens (the best).
Generalizations about Irish people and more specifically, the Swain family, abound – Ruth sometimes provides sources for these generalizations from fiction. The metaphors tropes are often related to literature (“as small as a sonnet”), salmon and their activities, fishing in general, water, and sometimes the senses creating a dream-like atmosphere.
The structure consists of a main frame story with lots and lots of digressive nested interior stories – this also adds to the dreaminess. (Actually, I’d call it a sense of being under water, but…)
The language is contemporary English with a bit of Victorian vocabulary complete with “Dear Reader”intrusions in the frame story such as when she says, “And now, Dear Reader, we will take a break from the narrative because I have to travel to Dublin.”
I honestly found most of it rather tedious because there is no general overarching plot- or not much of one. Ruth just keeps telling stories and getting sicker and we get to know the story of her family. And I suppose in the end that’s the point – getting to “know” someone, a family maybe, through their reading and writing.