This is Happiness by Niall Williams


This is Happiness is a 78-year-old man recounting his memories from the time he lived with his grandparents as an 18-year-old after dropping out of the seminary. His reminiscences describe life in the little village of Faha in County Clare in 1958. He meanders from telling stories to descriptions of the countryside to exploring his own feelings and what he has learned over his lifetime.

The focus, to the extent there is a focus, is the coming of electricity to the area. A man of 60, Christy McMahon, arrives in the village and boards with our narrator’s grandparents. Christy befriends Noe (short for Noel) and the two bicycle around in the evenings to pubs to hear music and drink too much. They work together planting poles for the electrical wires, though it turns out Noe is not employed to do the work and Christy mainly oversees Noe’s work.

It slowly develops that Christy came to the village to tell a woman he left at the alter how sorry he was as a part of an apology tour he has undertaken. Annie Mooney went on to marry a pharmacist and when he died, she took over the work and is a much respected person in the community. The slow-motion drama of the Christy and the former Annie Moonie connection keeps us going.┬áNoe also tells us about his discovery of love. It was fortunate that he dropped out of the seminary as he fell in love that summer with all three of the doctor’s daughters.

While the charm of rural Ireland in this era certainly exists, it’s hard to forget how this worked out for women or people who failed to meet certain expectations. For me the occasional turns of phrase made it worthwhile.

  • When Christy said something that took the grandfather, called Ganga, by surprise, Noe notes, “I didn’t have the feather to knock Ganga off his chair.”
  • On one of their music-beer outings, when the Guard arrived to say it was closing time, Noe and Christy knew they had to get up and leave. “Then we knew we couldn’t. Getting up proved aspirational. There was the idea of it, quite clear, unmistakably clear now, there were hands placed on knees for push off….”
  • That spring, to the surprise of everyone, the rain stopped and Noe referred to the sun “Spanishing the air, causing the swallows to question their coordinates.”
  • The boss-man for the electricity project was described as having “a face on him like a wasp in October.”

When Noe asked Christy why he had not done more to connect with Annie Mooney, he responds, “‘Noe,’ he said and took a theatrical breath, ‘This is happiness.'” Noe concludes, “It was a condensed explanation, but I came to understand him to mean you could stop at not all but most of the moments of your life. Stop for one heart beat and no matter what the state of your head or your heart, say ‘This is happiness’ because of the simple truth that you are alive to say it.”

Niall Williams, This is Happiness, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019, 392 pages (I listened to the 14.5 hour audiobook. This is unusually long for a book with fewer than 400 pages). Available at the UVa and public libraries and from Amazon.

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