This is Happiness by Niall Williams is not a book to be read in a hurry. Set in the remote village of Faha in County Clare, Ireland, the story is set in the 1950’s before electricity came to dirt-poor Faha. The characters painstakingly described with love and humor, the all-important pubs and church, the social interaction and family dysfunction, all are affected when government electrification eventually arrives. The story is told by 70-year-old narrator Noe (Noel) Crowe’s about the time when, at age 17, he left the seminary and was sent to Faha to live with his grandparents. It’s a coming-of-age book, ever so gentle, about love and loyalty, the difference between rote acceptance of the Church and deeper spirituality. The language is lush, the characters are artfully painted. The tenderness of the narrative is a gift of happiness from author Williams to the reader.
Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart, the 2020 Booker Award winner, takes us to Glasgow, Scotland in the 1980’s. Shuggie is a little boy who, even at five years old, knows he is different. He plays with dolls, has a refined sensibility, suffers endless teasing as a “poof” by other kids, and doesn’t understand why. That could be a story in itself. Yet the book is dominated by his mother, Agnes, who always wants more for herself and her three kids than living in squalor, among unemployed miners, in public housing next to the slag heaps. But Agnes is controlled by alcohol, to which she increasingly turns for consolation in failed marriages and other relationships. She uses the family’s dole money primarily to buy booze. Her descent into alcoholism, violence, suicide attempts, prostitution, dictates the terms of her children’s lives, which are heart-breaking. His siblings manage to escape, but, as Shuggie becomes a teenager, his love for his mother endures. Despite her abuse, he cares for her till the inevitable outcome.
Whereabouts by Jampha Lahiri, the newest fiction by the author of The Interpreter of Maladies and Namesake, is a personal journal of a middle-aged, single professor and writer who is an astute observer of places and people around her. Through her perception of place, we learn her inner emotions. Each chapter has a place name, as in On The Street, In The Trattoria, In the Bookstore, On The Couch. Initially, each chapter seems wholly independent of the others, but underlying themes weave whole: being single, lovers, solitude, loneliness, friendship, parental relationships, professional activities, city life, shopping, country escapes. We emerge with a full sense of the narrator, her fears, joys, hang-ups and coping mechanisms. This picture, intimate as it is, is the destination of Whereabouts, and it is a trip worth taking.
Oh, William by Elizabeth Strout continues the character of accomplished author Lucy Barton, reflecting on her marriages, children, affairs and insecurities. Her Orthodox husband, David, has recently died, and sadness overwhelms her. Her former husband, William, reaches out to her when his current wife leaves him. In buoying up William, Lucy is distracted from her profound grief over the loss of David. She and William go off on trips together, delving into their past relationship, some newly discovered truths about his mother and some moments of illumination about who these characters. Even with ever-deepening knowledge, we can never truly know who these characters are, nor can we know fully the mysteries of ourselves. The search for truth, especially about their backgrounds, drives the narratives, and Strout’s always-deft explorations of characters and communities keeps the reader immersed, as always.