A rambling, soft-hearted Irish family saga stuffed with eccentricity, literature, anecdotes, mythology, humor and heartbreak, from the author of Four Letters of Love (1997).
“There’s nothing direct about us,” says bedridden 19-year-old narrator Ruth Swain, speaking of the Irish, and the same is true of Williams’ (John, 2008, etc.) convoluted, comically discursive latest, a shaggy dog story of a novel narrated in what Ruth calls The Meander style. (Ruth has a thing for Capital Letters.) A Smart Girl and briefly a student at Trinity College Dublin but now ill and confined to her room while rain constantly drizzles across the skylight, Ruth explains how the Swain family holds to the Philosophy of Impossible Standard: "No matter how hard you try you can’t ever be good enough." Tracing this belief back through generations, she enumerates the caricaturish figures of her lineage in vaguely chronological order and with Dickensian flourishes. Tributes and references to books and writers crop up constantly. Voracious reader Ruth has inherited her father Virgil’s library of 3,958 books and intends to read them all. Virgil was a poet, and his father wrote books about salmon fishing, extracts from which appear in the text. In among the family history, descriptions of the local community (Faha in County Clare) and detours, there’s the thread of Ruth’s golden twin brother, Aeney, whose unsurprising fate is central to Virgil losing his struggle with the Impossible Standard and to the cycle of water and writing, faith and hope with which the book concludes.
Williams returns to home turf with a long, sentimental, affectionate poem to Irishness generally—“the best saints and the best poets and the best musicians and the world’s worst bankers”—and one quirky family in particular that insists on being read at its own erratic pace.