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History of the rain
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Ruthie Swain, the bedridden daughter of a dead poet, tries to find her father through stories -- and through generations of family history in County Clare. - (Baker & Taylor)

The bed-ridden daughter of a dead poet struggles to find her father through the stories that are central to her world, an effort that takes her through family writings, oral traditions, her father's library and her own writing. By the best-selling author of Four Letters of Love. 25,000 first printing. - (Baker & Taylor)

The bedridden daughter of a dead poet struggles to find her father through the stories that are central to her world, an effort that takes her through family writings, oral traditions, her father's library, and her own writing. - (Baker & Taylor)

Bedbound in her attic room beneath the falling rain, in the margin between this world and the next, Plain Ruth Swain is in search of her father, Virgil. To find him, enfolded in the mystery of ancestors, Ruthie must first trace the jutting jaw lines, narrow faces, and gleamy skin of the Swains from the restless Reverend Swain, her great-grandfather, to her grandfather Abraham, and finally to Virgil, through wild, rain-sodden history, exploits in pole-vaulting and salmon-fishing, poetry, and the 3,958 books piled high beneath the skylights in her room. Her funny, meandering narrative sings, moves, and irrevocably inspires. - (McMillan Palgrave)

Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. "Beautiful and enchanting, a novel that weaves a love of literature into its own moving tale." --The Guardian - (McMillan Palgrave)

Author Biography

Niall Williams was born in Dublin. His work includes stage plays, screenplays, nonfiction (co-written with this wife, Christine Breen), and, to date, seven novels. His first, Four Letters of Love, was an international bestseller and a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. Williams has twice been longlisted for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and, with this book, has been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. He lives in the west of Ireland. - (McMillan Palgrave)

First Chapter or Excerpt


A Novel

By Niall Williams


Copyright © 2014 Niall Williams
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-62040-647-2


The Salmon in Ireland


The longer my father lived in this world the more he knew there was another to come. It was not that he thought this world beyond saving, although in darkness I suppose there was some of that, but rather that he imagined there must be a finer one where God corrected His mistakes and men and women lived in the second draft of Creation and did not know despair. My father bore a burden of impossible ambition. He wanted all things to be better than they were, beginning with himself and ending with this world. Maybe this was because he was a poet. Maybe all poets are doomed to disappointment. Maybe it comes from too much dazzlement. I don't know yet. I don't know if time tarnishes or polishes a human soul or if it's true that it's better to look down than up.

We are our stories. We tell them to stay alive or keep alive those who only live now in the telling. That's how it seems to me, being alive for a little while, the teller and the told.

In Faha everyone is a long story.

You anything to the MacCarrolls over in Labasheeda?

To begin you must be traced into the landscape, your people and your place found. Until they are you are in the wrong story.

My mother is MacCarroll.

I was thinking that. But you are ...?

Swain. Ruth Swain.


We are our stories. The River Shannon passes below our house on its journey to the sea.

Come here, Ruthie, feel the pulse of the water, my father said, kneeling on the bank and dipping his hand, palm to current, then reaching up to take my hand in his. He put our arm into the cold river and at once it was pulled seaward like an oar. I was seven years old. I had a blue dress for summertime.

Here, Ruthie, feel.

His sleeve darkened and he rowed our arm back and let us be taken again, a little eddy of low sounds gargling as the throat of the river laughed realising what a peculiar thing was a father and his daughter.

When it comes to Clare, when it passes our house, the river knows it is nearly free.

I am plain Ruth Swain. See me, nineteen, narrow face, MacCarroll eyes, thin lips, dull hazelnut hair, gleamy Swain skin, pale untannable oddment, bony, book-lover, reader of so many nineteenth-century novels before the age of fifteen that I became exactly too clever by half, sufferer of Smart Girl Syndrome, possessor of opinions and good marks, student of pure English, Fresher, Trinity College Dublin, the poet's daughter. My History

My History in College: I came, collapsed, came home again. Home — hospital, home — hospital, the dingdong of me. I have had Something Amiss, Something Puzzling, and We're Not Sure Yet. I was Fine except for Falling Down. I have been Gone for Tests, Not Coming Right, Terrible Weak, Not Herself, and just A Bit Off, depending on the teller and whether loud or whisper, in Nolan's shop or on the windowsill of Prendergast's post office after Mass. For the record, I have never been Turning Yellow, never been complaining of the bowels, intestines or kidneys, never been spotted, swollen, palsied, never wetting, bleeding, oozing, nor, God-forgive-me, Bitch of the Brouders, raving. Mine is not the story. I am plain Ruth Swain, bedbound, here, attic room beneath the rain, in the margin, where the narrator should be, between this world and the next.

This is my father's story. I am writing it to find him. But to get to where you're going you have to first go backwards. That's directions in Ireland, it's also T. S. Eliot.

My father was named Virgil by his father who was named Abraham by his father who once upon a time was the Reverend Absalom Swain in Salisbury, Wiltshire. Who the Reverend's father was I have no clue, but sometimes when I'm on the blue tablets I take off into a game of extreme Who Do You Think You Are? and go Swain-centuries deep. I follow the trail in reverse, Reverends and Bishops, past the pulpit-thumpers, the bible-wavers, the sideburn and eyebrow-growers. I keep going, pass long-ago knights, crusaders and other assorted do-lallies, eventually going as far back as The Flood. Then in the final segment, ad-breaks over and voiceover dropped to a whisper, I trace all the way back to God Himself and say Who Do You Think You Are?

We are Swains. I read an essay once where the critic complained there was a distance from reality in Dickens's characters' names. He didn't know Dickens couldn't sleep. That he walked the graveyards at night. He didn't know Moses Pickwick was a coach-owner in Bath, or the church register at Chatham lists the Sowerberry family, undertakers, or that one Oliver Twiste was born in Salford, and a Mr Dorrett was confined in the Marshalsea prison when Dickens senior was there. I know, weird that I know that. But if you lie in bed all day with nothing but books you won't be Class One Normal yourself, and anyway Swains don't do Normal. Open the phonebook for County Clare. Turn to S. Run your finger down past Patrick Swabb the hurling chemist in Clarecastle and Fionnuala Swan who lives by the vanishing lake in Tubber, and before you get to Sweeney there we are. Between Sweeney and Swan we're the only entry, between the Bird King and the last daughter of Lir: Swain. The world is more outlandish than some people's imaginations.

My actual great-grandfather I never met, but because of him the Swain side of the family are what Nan Nonie calls Queer Fish. Out of the mists of my night-time unsleeping I sometimes see him, the Reverend. He too cannot sleep and walks away from a shadow church at marching pace, striking out past a graveyard where the headstones tilt like giant teeth and the stars are bared. He cannot get where he is going. His burden is an intense restlessness that will not let him lie down, and so while his lamb-wife Agnes sleeps on the very edge of their bed the Reverend walks the night. He walks twenty miles without pause. From him escapes a low murmuring hum that may be prayers. Hands behind his back, he is like a man with Business Elsewhere, and none of those he passes, lost souls, rumpled shades, dare delay him. He has the Swain jaw, the sharp up-jut, the grey beard-line that though he shaves twice daily remains like a half-mask he cannot take of. I see him, pacing out past the yew tree in the churchyard. What his business is, where he goes to meet it and how exactly it is transacted are all enfolded in the mystery of ancestors. He can only be followed so far. Above the tree I sometimes throw a fistful of stars, hang a crescent moon, but for my moon and stars the Reverend does not pause; he paces on into the dark, and then is gone.

Just a brief shiver of great-grandfather.

* * *

What the Reverend bequeaths to our story is the Swain Philosophy of Impossible Standard. In the year eighteen hundred and ninety-five he leaves it to his son at the christening, dipping the boy into the large cold name Abraham, and stepping back from the wailing, jutting the jaw. He wants his son to aspire. He wants him to outreach the ordinary and be a proof to God of the excellence of His Creation. That is how I think of it. The basis of the Philosophy of Impossible Standard is that no matter how hard you try you can't ever be good enough. The Standard raises as you do. You have to keep polishing your soul ahead of Entering the Presence. Something like that.

And Grandfather Abraham began polishing straight away. By age twelve, nineteen hundred and seven, he was a medal magnet. For Running, One Hundred Yards, Two Hundred Yards, Long Jump, Hop Step and Jump, Grandfather was your man.

Then he discovered the Pole-vault.

In St Bartholemew's School for Boys (established 1778, Headmaster, Thomas Tupping, a man notable for nothing but having eight too many teeth and lips that never touched) Abraham took the Reverend's restlessness to new heights, tearing down the runway with his lance and firing himself into the sky.

And that's where he arrives in my imagination, my mad grandfather, a blur-boy of white singlet and shorts, short sharp hair, blue eyes, charging like a knight towards an invisible enemy. There's no one watching. It's just him after school on a grey afternoon. Blackbirds have settled on the playing fields. The bounce of his stride echoes in the pole. It's not fibreglass but wood. The wind must think it's a mast and he a sail too small for lifting.

His pace quickens, his knees lift, the blackbirds turn. Down the cinderway he comes, crisp crunch-crunch-crunch, man on the end of a stick. Mouth pursed out and open he blows a wind-note with each step, whuu-whuu-whuu, announcing himself, warning the air that he is coming. His eyes are locked on the concrete trap. It's his entranceway. The pole lowers, wavers slightly. A hard clack is the last sound Grandfather hears on earth.

And here he is, Abraham in lift-off, his soul bubbling as he climbs, entering the upper air with perfect propulsion and ascension both. An instant and he no longer needs the pole. Hands it off. It falls to ground, a distant double-bounce off the solid world below. The blackbirds take fright, rise and glide to the goalmouth. Amazement blues my grandfather's eyes. He's at the apex of a triangle, a pale angular man-bird. His legs air-walk, his everything unearthed as he crosses the bar above us all. There is a giddy gulp of the Impossible and he sort of rolls over in the sky, pressed up against the iron clouds where God must be watching. His mind whites out. His body believes it is winged, has vaulted into some other way of being. Abraham Swain is Up There and Away, paddling the air above the ordinary and just for a moment praying: let me never fall to earth.


Excerpted from HISTORY OF THE RAIN by Niall Williams. Copyright © 2014 Niall Williams. Excerpted by permission of BLOOMSBURY.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Booklist Reviews

*Starred Review* From her boat-shaped bed in the attic room of her family's County Clare thatched-roof home, invalid Ruth Swain tries to uncover the secret of her father's tortured life. She is surrounded by the thousands of books he devoured, everything from Dostoyevsky to Dickens, García Marquez to Galsworthy. In the stories of others, Ruth hopes to find her own family's story, which begins with her rigidly religious great-grandfather, who set in motion the Swain quest for impossibly high standards. The failure to meet them will resonate for generations, culminating in the struggles of her father, Virgil, a dreamer and fisherman, the Irish prerequisites for becoming a poet. His inspiration arrived the night Ruth and her twin brother, Aeney, were born; it died the day Aeney drowned. Now housebound with a mysterious ailment, Ruth wants to write her father's story in a book of her own before she dies. You can smell the peat burning and feel the ever-present mist in acclaimed Irish novelist Williams' (John, 2008) luscious paean to all who lose themselves in books. Williams captures the awe and all of Ireland—its myths and mysteries, miseries and magic—through the pitch-perfect voice of a saucily defiant young woman who has witnessed too much tragedy but who clings devotedly to those she's lost. Copyright 2014 Booklist Reviews.

Library Journal Reviews

In the tiny Irish village of Faha, college student Ruthie Swain lies in bed, immobilized by a mysterious illness and surrounded by her deceased father's books. She vows to read each one as she writes her family's story. Recollections of the people she has lost and their memories of people she's never known mingle with the adventures and ideas she retains from her reading. Ruthie reads and composes to remember and to tell the tales, particularly of her father, Virgil, and her nearly magical twin brother, Aengus. Their absence seems almost to pull Ruthie out of existence. But by summoning their tragic yet beautiful lives from memory, Ruthie reenters the realm of the living. VERDICT Destined to be a classic, Williams's seventh novel (after Boy and Man) isn't just the elegy Ruthie offers to the departed but also a love letter to reading and its life-giving powers. The author's voice and narrative remain utterly unique even as she invites comparisons to Jim Hawkins, Ishmael, and hosts of legendary literary narrators.—John G. Matthews, Washington State Univ. Libs., Pullman

[Page 85]. (c) Copyright 2014. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

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