This is not a novel in which one comes to expect a careful structuring of events and their interconnection with a large cast of characters. In fact, ‘‘structure’’ seems too conventional a term to convey the gradual surfacing of the lives as viewed – and re-viewed – by the narrating Noe. Everything we learn is filtered through Noe’s memories of what he saw, and was part of, 50 years earlier, and when his memory falters he relies on his imagination, but always lets us know when this is the case.
Noe may be the narrator, but the real protagonist is Faha itself, with its church, its music, its little theatre for the occasional matter of community interest, such as a rather smug lecture on the wonders of the national electricity network, and of course its pub. The history of the times as they impinge on Faha weaves in and out with the strands of individual lives as lived there. And like ‘‘structure’’, ‘‘history’’ seems too formal a term to account for what emerges from Noe’s recollection of times past.
Christy has come to Faha for two purposes: he is a sort of harbinger for the imminent electrical updating of its resources, but more crucially to him is his need to find and make amends to a woman he nearly married 50 years earlier and who is the wife of Mr Gaffney, the village chemist. He has known her as Annie Mooney and urgently believes he cannot die without her forgiveness, and acquires in Noe a sort of intercessor.
Both Christy and electricity will make their impact on Noe. The boy reacts with sympathetic interest to Christy’s past, but his own present – that is, the ‘‘present’’ of half a century earlier – is also clamorous in its demands. When he helps Christy and others in the lifting of a pole of Finland timber (that sort of detail is endemic) and is seriously injured, he is taken to the rooms of Doctor Troy. Troy lives in a superior villa called Avalon, outside the ordinariness of Faha, and has three daughters, with the youngest of whom, Sophie, Noe becomes infatuated. Or at least infatuated with the idea of love making its first inroads on his emotions.
Now, don’t imagine that Williams is going to deal with the emotional involvements of either Christy or Noe as you might expect from a ‘‘well-made’’ novel. He is too concerned with the complexities of any life, whether of an individual or of Faha at large, to gratify expectations in any predictable way.
What happens in relation to Christy’s attempts to atone for his past or Noe’s adolescent discovery of what the future may hold are only intermittently continuing strands in the wondrous tapestry of this novel, in which dozens of other lives stake their claims, however fleetingly, on our attention.
So, what holds this rich brew of ingredients together? Stylistically, it depends on Noe’s narration as it moves between memories of his teenage past and the perspectives on these that later years have yielded. As he says, ‘‘A story grows in the gaps where the facts fall short. And maybe in extravagant weather, grows faster.’’
There is an easy wit that is sometimes at the expense of the individual, like the old woman who ‘‘had been unwell all her life, she’d say out loud, she could die at any moment; it was a gambit that worked until she was a hundred and four and God caught on’’, or at ‘‘the shopkeepers [who post-Mass] profited from the lightened spirit of man and womankind fresh from church and optimistic that the Lord was looking after them’’.
‘‘Poetic’’ is the other epithet relevant to the novel’s evocation of mundane lives, sometimes in page-long reflections that make Henry James seem terse by comparison, with every detail adding to the Breughelesque rendering of a small crowded world.