The book reviews of UK children's author, Brian Keaney
A story about a writer living in the West of Ireland mourning the death of his wife and struggling to deal with its impact on his children, Niall Williams' intensely poetic novel is almost unbearably moving:
"The children are home from school I hear them moving about restless with the empty time. Hannah comes and asks me when will I be going to the village. She needs shampoo. Ten minutes later Jack who was eight years old two days ago stands at the doorway and asks why we do not live in America. They have better television in America, he says. I want to tell him that television is not important. I want to take him inside my arms and hold him here beside me and say I know how things are for you. I know the harrowing the world has already made in the soft places of your spirit. I know your fears and pains and because I am your father I cannot know them for an instant without wanting to make them pass.
But the words, or perhaps the means to say them, seem stolen from
me, and instead I say I will try and get better stations on the television."
In flashbacks to the writer's own childhood, this novel is also a glorious celebration of the transformative power of literature and the importance of storytelling in all our lives. The young boy's attempt to find a place for himself in the world of the imagination and his struggle to understand and appreciate the real world all around him has a wonderful intensity that will be painfully familiar to many a bookish adult.
Running alongside the narrator's intensely realised inner world is the constant presence of the Irish countryside brought powerfully to life by Williams' evocative prose:
"Autumn progresses. The rain is ceaseless now, and yet seems hardly to
fall, a soft grey wrapped like a shroud about all west of the Shannon.
Leaves of sycamore blacken and curl their edges. When the wind picks
up the rain, they come slanting across the cottage window in stricken
flight. All the last blossoms are faded now, and crimson geraniums are
stalks of brown seed and yellowed leaves. Everywhere the countryside
is tattered, wind-wild. You can feel that somewhere in the deeps of
the earth something is slowly souring which once was sweetening.
Across the valley small herds of cattle move and stand and move
again for shelter. Between the showers huge blackbirds come and
alight in your garden. I raise my hand from the table and they do not
fly off. They wait there, as though burdened with some significance,
when I know they have none."
Out of this interplay of interior and exterior worlds, and out of the conflict between the reality that cannot be faced and the memories that cannot be escaped, Williams has created an incandescent work of literature as well as an intriguing investigation into the process of writing itself..