Irish Examiner Saturday - Irish Examiner - Weekend
Electric storytelling from a heartwarming bygone era
Award, and shortlisted for The Irish Times Literature Prize. Four Letters of Love is to be a major motion picture, but his latest novel, for me, shines brighter than any of his previous work.
Not a lot happens in This is Happiness. A man, Christie, arrives in the County Clare village of Faha as part of a team to provide electricity. It transpires that he has an ulterior motive. He wants to apologise to a woman who, years ago, he left at the altar. He lodges with a long-married couple, and befriends their grandson, Noel, a young man who has recently left the seminary and is soon to fall in love.
That’s pretty much it, yet it kept this reader enthralled. Lovingly written, the text is brimming with humanity, truth and humour — and then there’s the pitch perfect language, with not a word out of place. I keep rereading passages, marvelling at the author’s virtuosity whilst laughing out loud. I can’t remember when a book satisfied me as much. Just how does he do it?
“When I start a book I only have one sentence,” he says. “In this case, it’s: ‘It had stopped raining.’ In that sentence I have the tip of a thread of an invisible coat that is there, and every day I tease that thread out a little without yanking it, and at the end I have the coat. In this case, I knew it had stopped raining and I knew the book would take place between that drop of rain and the next drop and is therefore outside time.
“I wanted that fable sense of timelessness, this magical period, and I think we all have our moments in childhood, or in this case, when we first fall in love which exist outside of time.”
He wanted to set the book at the time of electrification because his father worked in the industry, and he later spoke to people who remembered that time. This was when he, and his American wife, the writer and painter Christine Breen, moved from New York to County Clare, to a house Christine’s grandfather had been born in. It was April Fool’s Day in 1985.
“These were the days of the wind-up telephone. And one of the remarkable things, to me, about west Clare was how dark it was at night-time. The valley was enormously dark. The nearest village was four miles away, there was just a tiny light from a house in the distance. I remember the enormity of the stars with no light pollution, and there were people around who remembered coming home and switching a light on for the first time. That was startling to me.”
Christie was born out of the character Christie Mahon in Synge’s play, The Playboy of the Western World. “I often wondered if, at the end of play, when Christie leaves Pegeen and goes off for a life of adventure, did he regret it? Did he want to come back and find her?”
A beautifully drawn character, Christie is the glue holding this magnificent novel together. He forms an alliance with the young Noel — and under his influence Noel finds a new ‘faith’ in traditional music. The scenes, where the two set off, by bicycle, seeking out music, and in particular Junior Crehan are laced with the most glorious humour.
I don’t think I have ever encountered such a lyrical yet accurate account of drunkenness as we see from Noel, after he has consumed bottle after bottle of beer.
“It sounds ridiculous, when you say I want to write about the generosity of the human spirit, but I want to write about that richness. I want to write from a place of love; love of the world, love of these people with all their foibles, strangeness, oddities, kindnesses, generosities and chivalries. And j u s t wa r m t h . C h r i s t i e is an embodiment of that.”
He explores the intricacies of a long marriage through Noel’s grandparents, Ganga and Doady.
“I wanted to celebrate a marriage like theirs and the kind of unshowy but actual love of living with somebody and allowing them to be each other. Even though she will still be saying, ‘you should be doing this, and will you get a job?’ she knows that he won’t because she knows him so well.”
Niall isn’t sure what he will pen next; but he’s fairly certain that everything he writes from now on will take place in the village of Faha.
“I know it so well I could set it in any period in history. All of humanity is there.”
Writing, Niall believes, is the only profession that doesn’t get easier with experience.
“You know a little more, but the bar keeps rising. The next book starts with this white page, and all I know is that is has to be better than the last one because you’re older and have lived, smelled, tasted, touched, all of that, call it wisdom, actually it’s life. You’re more alive in the world than you were the last time.
“First books are easier because you’re just burning to get them out. Now it’s trickier.”