History of the Rain: A Novel

by Niall Williams

Paperback, 2015

Call number




Bloomsbury USA (2015), Edition: Reprint, 368 pages


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.

Media reviews

Williams's rendering of the desolation of grief is affecting, as is the sympathy he evokes for the spirited Ruth's plight. Yet he can't seem to resist cliche and sentimentality, leaving the waterlogged reader longing for dry land.

User reviews

LibraryThing member kidzdoc
Because here is what I know: the rain becomes the river that goes to the sea and becomes the rain that becomes the river. Each book is the sum of all the others the writer has read.

Ruth Swain is a bookish young woman who lives in the tiny attic of her parents' house in Faha, County Clare, Ireland. She is disabled by a serious chronic illness, so she is largely confined to her bed, surrounded by a large collection of books from her father's library, and her visitors are limited to her teacher, a young man who is smitten with her, and the remaining members of her family.

Ruth narrates her father's story, in an effort to understand and appreciate him, and in order to do so she must go back in time to learn more about the Swains, how their beliefs, eccentricities and personal tragedies have shaped the lives of her great-grandfather, grandfather and father, and in doing so how it has molded her own outlook on life.

The novel is filled with numerous literary references and allegories, and is written in a 19th century style in keeping with Ruth's primary influences, most notably Charles Dickens and Robert Louis Stevenson. She paints an ethereal portrait of County Clare and her family, particularly her father Abraham and her twin brother Aengus, with a lightly humorous touch that belies and alleviates the tragedy and heartache that afflicts the Swains, and her own self depreciating tendencies are in keeping with the Impossible Standard that prevents any of the Swains from achieving true happiness or personal satisfaction.

History of the Rain is an elegiac work about family, an appreciation of literature and poetry, and the way in which one's imagination can be used to influence the art of storytelling, which can be a useful tool to provide healing and closure in the face of personal tragedy. This book is certainly worthy of inclusion in this year's Booker Prize longlist, and I wouldn't be surprised if it made the shortlist as well.
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LibraryThing member RidgewayGirl
I find it easier to review a book I hated, or one I liked, much more than that rare book that I love. It makes for boring reviews to say something along the lines of, "I loved it sooooo much," over and over in various iterations. Nevertheless, I will try.

This is a odd book by Niall Williams about books, family history and Ireland. Ruth is a plain girl, twin of the golden Aeneas, daughter to a beautiful, determined mother and an impractical, poetic father, who is haunted by his own eccentric history. Set on the western edge of county Clare in Ireland, History of the Rain is Ruth's story, written from her attic bedroom, surrounded by the thousands of books collected by her father, which have formed her writing style and which she is determined to read.

Told in a meandering style, History of the Rain reminds me of some of Kate Atkinson's writing. It's the journey through the pages that delights; this is not a book that proceeds forward with any urgency. Longlisted for this year's Booker Prize, I recommend this book to anyone willing to slowly wander the water-soaked meadows along the Shannon and to page through yellowing paperbacks. It's not a book for someone who wants a quick pace or a linear plot.
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LibraryThing member Perednia
When the world looks like it is trying even harder this week than last to fall apart, looking for solace to be able to go back out there and do one's best is now called self-care. I call it reading. And I found another novel that provided comfort.

History of the Rain by Niall Williams is on the Man Booker longlist this year. It's the story of young Ruth, confined to her bed upstairs, trying to find her father in the books he left. It's the story of their family, going back generations on both sides, and the story of how the Irish in one small village view themselves. It's also the story of salmon and the river and how one thing always leads to another.

But more than anything, History of the Rain is a story of how love of words and poetry and reading and writing are the stuff of life itself, of our hopes and dreams and loves and sorrows.

Now, all that may sound like a downer to some of you. Channeling Ruth, I can almost see some of you rolling your eyes and clicking your tongues. Hang on though.

Introducing her father and her story, Ruth writes:

The longer my father lived in this world the more he knew there was another to come. ... he imagined that 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 ...


We are our stories. We tell them to stay alive or keep alive those who may only live now in the telling.

And in the telling they live on, because, after all:

We have mixed metaphors and outlandish similes for breakfast.

She's a narrator who is old-fashioned in that I didn't have to wonder whether I could trust her or wonder whether she knew what she was talking about. Ruth is honest about herself and her memories. She also knows she misses the mark not only of her father's family Impossible Standard that controls their lives, but also the mark of what normal people not bound by an Impossible Standard know to do. As someone who also read "so many nineteenth-century novels before the age of fifteen that I became exactly too clever by half", I know it's not an Impossible Standard, but an Impossibly Strong Sense of Yearning, that can control the likes of Ruth. Among others.

Williams gives Ruth a wistful, hopeful voice, with just the right dollops of deprecation. She conveys how her father's grandfather and father grappled with the knowledge of the Impossible Standard and how, just when it appeared they were doomed to a lifetime of failure and disappointment, they found where they belonged. So did Ruth's father. He belonged with her mother.

The story of how Ruth's parents met is sweet and tinged with the realism that while things may not be great in Ireland, there is the chance for people to enjoy moments in life, look back and say it was grand.

Grand is the childhood Ruth has with her twin brother. He's the runner, the first-born, the one who never stops. He shines. She's the one who notices things. Their closeness is disrupted at school when they are forced into separate classes and he goes off with the boys. And here is where the tone of Williams's storytelling shines in that Ruth misses her brother, misses the days when they were closer to each other than anyone, but she doesn't resent her brother when he changes. She notes what other kids are cruel and how -- oh, she knows exactly how they are cruel and how they find their prey, and then continues on with what she loves.

And that's mostly words. Whether it's legend, community gossip, those 19th century novels or poetry, it's the words that make Ruth's writing down of her family's story sing:

We're a race of elsewhere people. That's what makes us the best saints and the best poets and the best musicians and the world's worse bankers.

And Ruth comes from people who stay near the river:

Beside the river there are two things you never forget, that the moment you look at a river that moment has already passed, and that everything is on its way somewhere else.

Through Ruth, Williams expresses the kind of witty commentary that only those who love books as their friends can do, whether it's Great Expectations, Stevenson (who is called RLS throughout the novel as one would nickname a friend), Melville, Middlemarch, dear Jane of course, Flannery and Dickens and oh where would we be without Yeats. And the physical qualities of books are lovingly noted as well:

... the book bulges, basically the smell of complex humanity, sort of sweat and salt and endeavour. Like all the fat orange Penguins, it gets fatter with reading, which it should, because in a way the more you read it the bigger your own experience of the world gets, the fatter your soul. Try it, you'll see.

Yes! That's it!

The secret of writing also is provided, and it's basically this: Sit in the chair. Also, know that writing is a sickness. And the only cure is to write.

Williams writes of the love of the river, the love of the words and the love of parents for their children and of children for their parents. The version he gives Ruth of Joan Didion's famous "we tell ourselves stories in order to live" is this:

We tell stories. We tell stories to pass the time, to leave the world for a while, or go more deeply into it. We tell stories to heal the pain of living.

And Williams also tells the story of Ruth and her family to tell of how they loved each other.

In these days, that is powerful solace.
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LibraryThing member Cariola
This is one of those books that I was sad to leave behind when I finished, and that probably means that I will be returning to it down the road. The story is a fairly simple one: Ruth Swain is a sickly young woman living in the attic room of a damp house in Faha, County Claire. She is surrounded by the physical legacy her father Virgil left her--his extensive library--and caught up in his less tangible legacy, a fierce love of and belief in the power of language and the longing to write. Virgil, tormented by the Swains' version of The Impossible Standard, could neither shake his passion for writing nor ever be satisfied with his efforts. It's his daughter Ruth who decides to write his story, going back to her grandfather's small book, Salmon Fishing in Ireland and relying heavily on Virgil's library to better understand him.

This is a small story, revolving around some of the familiar stories set in Ireland. often sad, sometimes magical, sometimes sparkling with humor (much of it dark, however). What makes it extraordinary is Williams's style, which is simultaneously poetic, commonplace, rapturous, and brutal. It did for me what a book that I totally failed for me--Tinkers)--apparently did for many other readers: it gave me transcendant, almost spiritual moments rooted NOT in the sublime but in the inner life. If you are a writer of poetry, or have ever aspired to be one, you will know exactly what Virgil is feeling here:

What he did was stand beside the river.
That's where he found the rhythm.
There were no words at first. At first there was a kind of beat and hum that was in his blood or in the river and he discovered now somewhere in his inner ear, a pulsing of its own, a kind of pre-language that at first he wasn't even aware of sounding. It was release. It was where the brimming spilled, in sound. To say he hummed is not right. Because you'll suppose a tune or tunefulness and there was none, just a dull droning inside him. He went up and down the riverbank. He went the way Michael Moran the Diviner goes when he's going round and round a source, head bent and almost holy, shoulders stiff, neck-crane like Simon the Cross-carrier, wispy hairs on the back of his neck upright and all of him attentive to an invisible elsewhere.
Virgil walked the rhythm the river gave him. Over and back. Back and over. Lips pressed shut now, brow like a white slab, eyes watery and in a way unseeing. And now he was tapping. Three fingers of his right hand against his thigh, dumda dumda dum dum-da. The ground softened and mucked under the weight of the npt-yet-poem, was printed and overprinted, bootmarks rising little ridges, small dark river waves, as he tramped and hummed and heard the hum of a first phrase.
He had something.

Just a lovely, lovely book. It made me want to recapture the joy--no, the b=necessity--of writing again. I can't believe that it didn't make the Booker shortlist.
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LibraryThing member nomadreader
The basics: Ruthie Swain is home from college after a medical issue arose. She lives in the attic of her family's home, along with over 3000 of her father's books, and she plans to read all of them.

My thoughts: Ruthie is a delightful narrator. She's quite precocious, and at times early in the novel I had to remind myself how young she is, as she also tells her story with the wisdom of an older woman. There's also a boldness as she addresses the reader directly. Perhaps it's why I felt so connected to Ruthie--she speaks right to me in this novel. I adored Ruthie's view of the world. It was both humorous and filled with truths:
"Irish people will read anything as long as it's about them. That's what I think. We are our own greatest subject and though we've gone and looked elsewhere about the world we have found that there are just no people, no subject as fascinating as We Ourselves. We are simply amazing."
Through her father's books, she explores her family history. This story is both an ode to the (fictional) Swain family and its history, as well as to literature itself. As Ruthie tells the story of her family history, she sprinkles the titles of her father's massive book collection in parentheses. For me, many titles were familiar but others weren't. While my ignorance of some titles didn't appear to hinder my understanding or appreciation of the story, I imagine readers familiar with all of the referenced texts will pick up on even more nuances.

Favorite passage: "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."

The verdict: This novel is a book lover's dream. It's filled with references to literature that illustrate the shared histories of readers. Ruthie was a wonderful character to spend time with, but I found myself enjoying her insights on the world more than her own family's history. Thus my enjoyment of this novel waxed and waned through these parallel narratives.
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LibraryThing member bonnieconnelly
Beautifully written - more poetry than prose - I could not get into the story despite the wonderful language.
LibraryThing member lamotamant
“Some people make you feel better about living. Some people you meet and you feel this little lift in your heart, this 'Ah', because there's something in them that's brighter or lighter, something beautiful or better than you, and here's the magic:... before this you hadn't realized or you'd forgotten human beings could shine so.”

In my sky-lit Imaginarium, walled in with books piled just-so, the word 'people' in the above quote tends to shimmer and flash. It trembles as the word 'books' desperately tries to unearth itself from beneath. I believe Ruth Swain would understand the verging cataclysm. The way the electrified air of a book, deeply read, pours out and consumes long after being consumed by reader. The way a character can walk round you, shadowing shadow, and stick with you.

Or at least I believe in the Ruth-Swain-as-phantasm my mind has built up beside me as I devoured Williams History of the Rain last night, anyway. I also believe it's this rain-edged phantasm that keeps the words 'rapt' and 'consumption' donging against my brain like the ring-dinging of a mad caroler with bell. The connection with William's characterization of Ruth being the driven rivet in the riveting.

Sans connection, the writing might have been a bit of a challenge. I'm Not Exactly a fan of the random Capital. Having been sucked into the flow of Ruth's meander, however, it fades into mere characterization of the narrator. The experience of the 'free-written.' You might even catch a glimpse of words and their sometimes-capitals forming in the rain washing down Ruth's skylight, out in the grey.

It's this depth of characterization, being able even to inhabit the mode of writing, that impressed me most with Williams History; Ruth Swain being such an accessible character. While I might be partial to seeking out the dead in living books, partaking of a similar journey earlier this year which resulted in finding my father in the ageing pages of Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, partial more still to the breath of breathing books when mine escapes me in illness, I don't believe the accessibility of Williams character is experience specific. Though it's certainly 'reader' specific.

Reader specific in that only a reader will experience the craving a referenced book inspires. Only a reader will understand that the influence of a book is a very personal thing. That each book has it's own taste but it also has this sub-taste. One of an intermingling with all the rest of the books that have settled their words on the tip of your tongue before it. For me, that's the richness of History; that we get layers of Ruth through reference because she really is simply a reader, writing. Her world very much illumined by the amber of words read.

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LibraryThing member mausergem
This book was long listed for the Booker prize 2014.

Set in Ireland this is a story narrated in the first person by Ruth Swain, a bedridden twenty year old girl. She is lying in this attic surrounded by some three thousand odd books which she reads unceasingly. She is also writing a book tracing the history of her family starting from her grandfather. She is trying to understand her father through the stories and the histories of her family. The Swain family is eccentric and abide by the "Philosophy of Impossible Standard" which makes for interesting stories.

The writing style is meandering but very very good. It gets a 5/5 rating. An excellent read.
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LibraryThing member maryreinert
Told by young Ruth Swain, who is dying, this is really a generational story of her father and the influences that made him into a poet and a man of "impossible ambition; he wanted all things to be better than they were, beginning with himself and ending with this world." Two generations previous, the Reverend Swain sets the "Swain Philosophy of Impossible Standard." His son, Abraham, fails to meet that standard and is completely unaware that he in turn sets an impossible standard for his son, Virgil.

Set in small Faha, Ireland, Virgil Swain is an odd-ball. He is a poet whose love for reading is only outdone by the love for his children, Ruth and twin Aeney. Ruth is confined to her bed, but is surrounded by her father's books. She recreates the Swain story by tying them to the stories in the books using "term paper" references complete with publishing company. The theme of this novel could well be "we are what we read"

As a life-long lover of books, I can understand how stories have such an influence on our lives. The style of this book is unique: humorous and chatty, yet thoughtful and loving. It is the story of how our lives are a part of a much larger family pattern even when there is no sense of family. It is an example of the power of story and how stories affect lives for generations.
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LibraryThing member bodachliath
This is a luminously poetic, insightful, poignant and often funny book about the power of literature to transcend the difficulties and tragedies of ordinary life.

The young narrator is bedbound and probably dying, and the story explores her attempts to understand her father, a largely failing poet with a rather tenuous relationship with reality, through the extensive library he left her. This also allows Williams to explore his own reading, and the artistic processes involved in writing.

I feel I have been unjustly ignoring Williams since reading his first two novels some years ago
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LibraryThing member lolapom
Rain. Lots and lots of rain.
LibraryThing member edwinbcn
History of the rain is a potentially very interesting story, but very poorly executed. A young woman, Ruth, suffering from an illness is bound to spend her days at home. To pass the time, she starts reading her grandfather's library. The books are numbered. The story has no development. It seems the author felt compelled to include all (?) or as many of the 3000+ books of the grandfather's library. There is no (?) system to the way the books are included in the story; what follows is an unstructured name-dropping of book titles, without apparent purpose.

History of the Rain might have won the Booker Prize if the book reading in the novel, i.e. the catalogue numbers proved to be a compelling plot element. On reading History of the Rain, I could not discern any logic, nor significance in the choice of books or the order of their reading. The random reading informs neither the character in the novel, nor the reader in the real world.

In fact, the plot of the novel itself is very weak, if not to say absent. To me History of the Rain is just a combination of a very weak plot and a potentially interesting idea, which, however, at the hands of Niall Williams falls flat.

The way Williams deals with the idea is uninspired and mechanical. It also seems that the number of books referred to get higher as the novel progresses, becoming more of a barrier and mental burden than help in understanding the novel or inspire the reader. Incredibly boring.
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LibraryThing member JSpilman
History of the Rain centers on a character with a vivid story, who is more interested in the stories of other people. She is quirky, lovable, very ill and confined to an inner life with her books. Told through her words are the stories of her family, mostly along the banks of the River Shannon in County Clare Ireland.
Williams is terrific at setting the reader at the table in the kitchen, bread baking in the oven, rain overhead. There is a melancholy that can't be avoided given the tragedy of creating a life in dire circumstances, but Williams adds humor, gentle delights, grace, beauty. It is a lovely lovely book.… (more)
LibraryThing member ozzer
The novel is set in rural Western Ireland (Faha) where the narrator, a young girl named Ruth Swain is suffering from some unspecified illness that seems to be life threatening. She is a voracious reader who demonstrates a high degree of intelligence and facility with relating what she has read to her life. One of the appealing features of the narrative is Ruth’s frequent and often humorous but sardonic reference to 19th Century literature, her favorites being Dickens and Robert Louis Stevenson (RLS).
Williams evokes Ruth’s family, its history, and many of the characters living in the community with a rambling narrative that often can be confusing, but becomes a coherent picture as the book progresses. Prominent characters that effect Ruth’s life include her twin brother, Aengus, her mother and especially her father, Virgil, who is a failed but striving farmer, frustrated poet and, like Ruth, dedicated reader.
This novel is about loyalty, family, and caring (albeit with a certain amount of distance). Especially it is about intellectuals whose expertise is not practical things (e.g., farming) but rather ideas both from others in the form of reading and from self-reflection. Books and literature are important to living a full life because they help us to make connections and offer insights that otherwise would be missed. The overriding message seems to be that art is done because of need not for recognition or monetary reward but to learn more about the world and those in it. In her last days, Ruth’s main focus is to read her fathers large collection of books and his poems in order to better understand him. This illustrates the important relationship between writers and readers. Writing presents the bigger challenge because we all strive for some “impossible standard” that can never be achieved. The story of Virgil’s poems being submitted by his wife without his permission is particularly apt in this regard. It is obvious that he would never find those poems worthy of publication. The outcome of the story makes it clear that the measure of writing success (i.e., publication) is really irrelevant.
The most important images in the book are rain and rivers. Rain makes rivers and these give in multiple ways including fish and fishing. They also can brutally take away with floods and drowning.
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