When Love Confronts a Delusion

FOUR LETTERS OF LOVE

By Niall Williams.

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

257 pp., $23.

How can one tell if a strong conviction is proof of something real? Or, if a dream is worth the sacrifices it may demand?

Dublin-born playwright and author Niall Williams boldly poses these questions in his first novel, "Four Letters of Love." He explores them with passion and insight, even if his answers finally rely more on rhetorical flourish and dramatic effects than on persuasive analysis of the situations and persons involved in them.

Williams shows keen insight into his characters' minds and hearts, and his novel is filled with poignant musings on love, loss, inspiration, suffering, and hope. Hardly a literary neophyte, Williams has had two plays produced at Dublin's Abbey Theatre. And he and his wife have written four nonfiction books about their experience restoring an old farmhouse in County Clare.

Wielding a pen aflow with all the lyricism of any Celtic twilight, he deftly combines two seemingly unconnected stories that come together by the novel's end.

In the first of the two narratives, a civil servant and amateur painter, William Coughlan, is suddenly struck with the unshakable conviction that God has called him to give up his job and devote himself completely to his art. Leaving his wife and young son to shift for themselves, he takes off for Ireland's sea-swept western coast to fulfill what he feels is his divinely-inspired mission. His decision wreaks havoc on his family, and leaves his son, Nicholas, who narrates the story, wondering whether his father's calling was a sad delusion or a miraculous revelation.

The second story introduces the Gores, who live on a small, enchantingly primitive island off the coast of Galway. The father, Muiris, is the island's schoolmaster. Once an aspiring poet, he feels his gift has dried up, but he is dedicated to his students and to his wife and children, Isabel and Sean. But one day, when the children are playing, a mysterious trauma robs the boy of his speech and confines him to a wheelchair.

Isabel, a sparkling girl burdened with feelings of guilt about her brother, becomes her father's last hope. She is doing very well at a convent school on the mainland when she falls in love with a decent but mediocre man. She does not know what to make of her own emotions: "[W]hile the cool autumnal light came and went from behind the clouds of the western sky, Isabel told her mother she was in love. She could not explain it, she said. He was nothing like the man she had imagined for herself, and yet she couldn't help herself.... While Isabel talked on ... her mother listened and nodded and tried not to show signs of the sadness filling up in her."

Towards the end, however, Williams's mysticism goes into overdrive: White birds fly out of characters' mouths, mysterious floral odors emanate from their love-sick bodies, and the author's once-graceful prose dissolves in a sea of sentimental clichs. Still, there are many lovely and truthful things in this novel that far outweigh its mildly irritating mannerisms.

* Merle Rubin regularly reviews books for the Monitor.

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