When electricity comes to a quiet Irish village

Niall Williams’ “This Is Happiness” weighs a traditional way of life against the costs of modernization, and cherishes simple daily pleasures.

Courtesy of Bloomsbury Publishing
“This is Happiness” by Niall Williams, Bloomsbury Publishing, 380 pp.

Irish novelist Niall Williams’ latest book looks back on the time when everything changed. It’s the 1950s, and electricity is finally coming to the Irish village of Faha. Along with it arrives Christy, an electric company worker who is harboring secrets. And then there is the rain. Usually a constant drizzle, it seems to have stopped. Everything seems a bit brighter.

Williams weaves together these various elements with a writing style that evokes the storytelling for which Irish culture is justifiably recognized. In true fashion, he never lets the plot get in the way of a good side story. The town of Faha – the residents and their way of life – emerge as major characters in his various tales. Ordered by tradition, closely tied to the land and the seasons, daily life among the townspeople hasn’t really changed in centuries. But one would be mistaken to believe an absence of change means stasis.

The novel is told from the perspective of Noel, an older man looking back on this year of change. A teenager at that time, he had experienced a crisis of faith and had bailed on his studies at the seminary. Leaving his native Dublin, he had sought refuge at the home of his grandparents in Faha. Noel has no idea what his next steps might be but, sheltered by village life, he discovers much of what he needs – time, self-reliance, and the villagers’ quiet way of simply accepting people as they are.

Christy arrives at about the same time and lodges with Noel’s grandparents. Noel soon discovers the electric company project is only the public reason for Christy’s arrival. He learns that Christy has maneuvered the assignment, seeking an opportunity to alter a chapter from his past. He wants to rectify a wrong. He wants to make amends with a woman who has lived in the town for decades, a woman whom he once loved and whose heart he had broken. 

Though decades apart in age, the two men form a friendship. As Noel learns more of Christy’s plan, he views it as purely romantic. Brimming with the naiveté of youth, he attempts to aid Christy’s efforts. Noel soon learns, however, that not everything can be changed. Some things simply need to be accepted, a truism the townspeople have lived by for generations.

As the residents observe the daily progress of the power company workers stringing the cables across the countryside, not everyone is eager for the changes that electricity will bring. One of these holdouts is Noel’s grandfather. While electric company officials speak of all the conveniences that will soon be available to the townspeople, Noel comes to realize what his grandfather already knows – “an easier and more natural way of living was nearing its end.”

While the book unfolds events from decades ago, its themes might be more timely than they first appear. Yes, it shines a light on another era, but it is a short leap from the experiences of the townspeople to our contemporary culture, to the consideration of whether constant connection – in their case electricity, in our times the Internet – truly improves daily life. It asks whether newer is always better since, once that switch is flipped, there is no turning back. Some things will be lost forever. Maybe it’s best to pause and consider the choice, to at least take a moment and appreciate simplicity.

This book might not be everyone’s cup of tea. The story rambles and winds, sometimes with little regard for a destination. One might say nothing really happens. Instead, Williams captures commonplace village life, pausing to appreciate the nuances and subtleties, focusing on the details that bring richness to what might appear to be unpretentious and unadorned. 

But along the way, he raises these ordinary occurrences to the sublime – the overwhelming longing of first love, the daily attentions of an enduring marriage, and the comforting rituals of last rites when it is time to say good-bye. Williams imparts the fullness of the villagers’ lives before they are interrupted by electricity. After all, “Beneath the pinholed heaven, the night was God-dimensioned and monumental before electric light.”

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