The singular gift of ordinary happiness

Happiness is so fleeting and, in literature, it can be mundane. According to Tolstoy, “All happy families are alike.” But Irish author Niall Williams boldly, eloquently and irreproachably claims the emotion in his enchanting new novel. It’s set in the village of Faha on the west coast of Ireland and begins with three changes that arrive simultaneously. Endless days of rain come to an end, the parish priest announces electricity is coming to the area, and a lodger by the name of Christy McMahon approaches our narrator.

In those first moments beside him on the windowsill I think I knew there was something arresting about him. Everybody carries a world. But certain people change the air about them.

This Is Happiness by Niall Williams

Noel Crowe is looking back 60 years to this time when he’s 17 years old. He lives with his grandparents in Faha, feeling profoundly lonely. His mother died, he quit divinity school and he lost his faith. Christy, however, inspires optimism with his generous spirit and by the real reason for his presence in Faha. It’s not to work on the electrification, but to ask forgiveness from the woman he loved 50 years ago. He enlists Noel as a scout during Easter mass to tell him if she recognizes Christy when he passes her pew. She doesn’t, but Noel lies and says she smiled. Late that night, in an epic drunk scene worthy of the literary canon, Christy serenades Annie Mooney at her window.

In his mind he was seeing her. I am certain of that. If you came into Faha at the moment, if you came into either end of the sleeping village, in the grace and the repose of the just now delivered dawn-light, the two parked cars, the tied bundles of newspapers outside the post office, you’d hear him singing and you’d be certain too.

Nothing happens. Annie neither parts the curtain nor asks about Christy – and Christy has no plan B, which causes Noel to interfere.

Faha has existed quite well without electricity for thousands of years far into the 20th century. The tectonic transformation creates a quirky, delightful subplot of farmers backsliding on their agreements. A theme of simplicity versus modern convenience results, expanding the rich setting of contented remoteness with humor and insight. It lavishly invigorates the drama between Christy, Annie and Noel. This is finely woven Irish storytelling that our aged, wistful narrator likens to Irish music where one tune enters another and another “so player and listener are taken away and time and space are defeated.” That’s exactly what happens with the sparkling, warm prose that demands slow reading, as if we are inhabiting the hills and fields of Faha, where a deadline is an invention of convenience.

Noel is critically injured by a falling utility pole. He becomes infatuated with the doctor’s sympathetic daughter. His important relationships, however, remain with Christy, who teaches him how to be a fully alive human being, and Annie, who teaches him the meaning of dignity. In the end, when the lights come on, these characters experience more than a changed environment – they’re forgiven and enlightened – and we come to understand the singular gift of ordinary happiness.

This Is Happiness by Niall Williams is published by Bloomsbury. A version of this review aired on NPR member station WOSU 89.7 FM broadcasting throughout central Ohio.