In brief: Ruth lies in her bed at the top of the house, dying. But first she needs to through her father’s library to understand the family history and him.
The good: The story really gets you in – Ruth is a sharp observer who knows how to spin and embellish a story.
The not-so-good: There are sad parts that are quite affecting.
Why I chose it: On the Man Booker Prize 2014 long list.
Pages: 314 (eBook)
Setting: Predominantly Ireland
My rating: 9 out of 10
As I attempt to read my way through the Man Booker long list for 2014, I keep thinking two things: wow, these books really are well written and how do they affect me? I think History of the Rain is the best of what I’ve read so far (admittedly, not much – three and a bit of the thirteen, with no chance of finishing before the short list announcement). Niall Williams’ story hit me squarely in both places – I was flabbergasted at how well the plot weaved together, keeping me enthralled as I was picturing the river and Ruth in her bed in addition to being quite sad at Ruth’s fate and the tragedies faced by her family, namely her mother.
The book opens as Ruth lies in her bed, waiting to die. She’s pretty stoic about it and I was too until I found out that she was 19 years old. Then I thought perhaps this story is taking place in the past, but no, it’s modern day. Ruth appears to be suffering from leukaemia (it’s not explicitly stated, that’s just the conclusion I came to due to the mentions of how there are bad things in her blood) but she’s perfectly lucid and accepting as she goes towards the end. Or is she? She’s going to read her way through her father’s library (that’s 3 958 books) because that’s how she’s going to find him. To do that, she also needs to work her way through the history of the Swain family, from her dad to great-grandfather.
Ruth is a ripper storyteller; she’s bold and brash much to the despair of her former teacher. You can’t help but join the flow of the narrative, which meanders all around the place from Ruth in present day to World War I to the 1970s and back again. But the river is the constant in the story, the thing that Ruth can see from her room and is the cause of several of the family’s misfortunes. Early on, Ruth also mentions her brother, Aeney, but always in the past. And why doesn’t her father visit her now that she’s so unwell?
All will be revealed in good time. In between the history of the Swain family (and later, the MacCarroll family on her mother’s side), Ruth has to face her fears by leaving the house for tests and Consultant Visits (Ruth is not averse to a bit of extra capitalisation for emphasis). There’s some mentions about how the local hospitals have been shut so people can go to Centres of Excellence, which happen to be hours away on very poor roads (with broadband at dial up speed) – a political statement, perhaps? These parts sometimes seem to be at odds with the tone of the story, which has a gentle feel to it, almost like being on a boat in a gentle breeze. It didn’t detract away from my enjoyment, but it did bring me back to reality and modern day (Ruth tends to make her story sound rather Victorian at times). Ultimately, Ruth returns to her story of her family’s history for comfort. It’s a fine story too that kept me engaged fully. However, it’s not a book to be read quickly. It should be taken slowly, like the river creeping up the banks to savour the images that Williams writes.
While the plot isn’t linear – it jumps around a bit, another reason not to speed read this one – it’s cohesive and without fail, entertaining. The Swain men have lead interesting lives and Williams’ love for Ireland is evident throughout the narrative. There’s a little of a love story underneath Ruth’s tales, it doesn’t appear often (Ruth seems opposed to romance for most of the story) but it’s bittersweet. It really made me feel sad about her plight and then I thought how amazing it was that Williams had created such feelings for Ruth, who plays more of a narrator role in this book. These characters are beautifully rendered – flawed but relatable. Combined with the exquisite writing, I’d be very disappointed if this book didn’t make the Man Booker shortlist.