Saturday 18 May 2013

Four Letters of Love by Niall Williams (and a touch of Bridget Jones)

There's no doubt that certain books resonate with particular times of your life. Think about travelling in North America accompanied by beaten up copies of Steinbeck and Kerouac, or devouring I Capture the Castle as a romantic and wistful teenager.

But others are as mismatched as dry fingers on a fret board, with every sentence grating so much you feel a violent impulse to expunge this book from your life. At least, that's how I reacted to reading Bridget Jones's Diary just after I'd had my first baby - there was Bridget spending hours deciding which pants to wear, obsessing over whether she'd gained a pound or two and flirting with that cad Daniel Cleaver, while I was leaking breast milk and trying unsuccessfully to insert cabbage leaves down my bra. Given half a chance, I would've battered singleton Bridget with her diary.

Yet at another time, I would probably have enjoyed the book as much as I did the film a few years later. Wrong book, wrong time. And that's how I felt when reading Niall Williams' Four Letters of Love for our book club recently.

Williams was born in Dublin but now lives in the west of Ireland, and Four Letters of Love, written in 1997, was his first book. It's the story of Nicholas and Isabel who are, so we're told, made for each other, if ever they are able to meet. So far so good, we begin with Nicholas whose father has been told by God that he should give up his civil servant's career to become a painter, while his mother's reaction to this news is to take to her bed; something she does with increasing frequency as the households assets drain away. Nicholas' story is told in the first person, Isabel's meanwhile is told in the third. I had the sneaky suspicion this might be to distinguish their otherwise similar voices.

Isabel goes to school on the mainland of Ireland, but her home is a rain-lashed island off the coast. Returning to Galway after Christmas in her final school year, apparently she doesn't know she's about to fall in love. This doesn't seem unreasonable, problem is, it's not her soul mate Nicholas that she's about to fall for but the much more prosaic Peader, owner of Galway's least successful haberdashery.

There's certainly some beautiful writing but this wasn't really the book for me. Lots of tortured souls mooning around, accepting their fate and enduring the chronic misery of their lives without doing anything much to help themselves. Mixed up in all this is the conundrum of whether Nicholas and Isabel are ever going to get together, as well as those letters, which I eventually stopped caring about.

Four Letters of Love is poetically written in the Irish tradition and there are some lovely, rambling phrases:
the clouds sat down, the light left the day, and the pastoral greenness of all the stone-walled fields surrendered to a grey and desolate emptiness. For miles it was raining. At the edges of the sky you could see the fraying of clouds and the water spilling, like so many downstrokes of a sable brush'.
But some of it made me cross:
Wives create their husbands. They begin with that rough raw material, that blundering, well-meaning and handsome youthfulness they have fallen in love with, and then commence the forty years of unstinting labour it takes to make the man with whom they can live.
This novel has had some great reviews, so very likely it's just me, but I couldn't feel my way into getting swept along by it.


  1. I agree with you! While the author has some moments of brilliance, I thought he got carried away more often than not. Not my favorite read!!!

  2. A great read. His books keep getting better and better. Just stated This is happiness. First chapter hasn't disappointed.


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