“We are our stories. We tell them to stay alive or keep alive those who only live now in the telling.”
Sequestered in an attic room in her ramshackle family home in County Clare, Ireland, separated from the outside world by a debilitating medical condition, ‘plain Ruth Swain’ has only the constant rain and a voluminous cache of books for company. A voracious reader, Ruth’s sole occupation is to “find [her] father” among the pages of his eclectic collection, in order to gain a fuller understanding of the man who shaped her life through the men (and women) who shaped his.
“Each book is the sum of all the others the writer has read”, Ruth writes as she documents her attempts to reconstruct her father by retracing his steps through his literary influences, reasoning that, like the rivulets of rainwater which trace their way down her skylight, merging and begetting new droplets as they go, so too do stories function. In drawing on a wealth of stories, from the salmon rich tales of Celtic mythology to the poems of W. B. Yeats, the caricaturist tales of Charles Dickens to the sombre work of Emily Dickinson, Williams runs the risk of appearing haughty in his namedropping, but the genuine love of literature which is attached to their presence in the narrative softens any such negative effect. Ruth and her father Virgil both bear the author’s own awe for and love of the written word and share his experiences of visiting book shops and libraries in their formative years, and the author identifies not just the influence that the texts these bibliophiles encountered had on their own minds, but also the influence the works had on each other. Williams, through Ruth, gently unfolds the idea that not only do stories provide a means to immortalise those long dead, but that the tales themselves are organic and in possession of their own form of life, constantly evolving, merging, and begetting.
Though the novel’s title may seem somewhat elliptical, rain being rather too ephemeral to be attributed any real history, it encapsulates the Swain’s propensity for the poetic; water, like the recurring references to the mythological salmon, is swiftly established as a metaphor not only for the hardship which seems to continually befall the family, nor merely as a conduit to the Divine as Ruth’s father Virgil seems to consider it, but also as a picturesque metaphor for the joining of two bloodlines and two ways of life. Virgil is both widely read and widely travelled, a sailor and an outsider; his wife Mary MacCarroll is, by contrast, born and raised in County Clare. In their marriage, “The Swain are the written, the MacCarroll the oral. [Theirs] is a history of tongue marrying paper, the improbable marrying the impossible”, a marriage of styles which is reflected in Williams approach to writing Ruth. Though her vocabulary is as florid as may be expected of one so deeply literate, the narrative is decidedly anecdotal and tangential in its mannerisms. Her thoughts meander river-like through her family history, one memory jogging another, some relevant to her story, others dismissed as simply “fecund”.
Despite the tendency of the novel’s rose-tinted perspective on the hardship and misfortune that permeates the family’s past to, at times, lean towards sentimentalism, History of the Rain’s frank and light-hearted style make for an enjoyable read. Its circumspect approach to plot draws the reader, salmon-like, gradually onwards up the winding river of Swain-MacCarroll history to a conclusion which, in its inconclusiveness, encapsulates Williams’ love of the story, of the journey, rather than the destination.