No 684 Four Letters of Love by Niall Williams

4 letters cover

There is a moment in this remarkably beautiful debut novel when a father watches his wife embrace their daughter before she heads off to boarding school for the first time. As he watches them he thinks

with amazement the hopeless inadequacy of the human mind to fathom the miracle of love

Fathoming the miracle of love seems to be the raison d’être of this novel of love, loss, miracles and fate. With glorious prose, shot through with light and grace, Four Letter of Love tells the seemingly disparate stories of two Irish families and the moments of love and of loss that have both altered them and linked them forever. Although seemingly separate tales, they finally, mystically converge with an inevitability and force and seems to prove that there is an unfathomable reason to all that we experience.

The Four Letters of the title refer to both the letters in the word ‘love’ in English and Latin; to four significant love letters sent and read and to four letters never received.  While God, fate and chance all play their part in the tale, it is the need to love and to be loved that gives the book its emotional depth and heart.

William Coughlan, a frustrated Dublin civil servant, believes himself called by God to be a painter and sets off alone for the wild coast of the West of Ireland, leaving his wife and young son, Nicholas, to look after for themselves with disastrous consequences.

God didn’t say much. He told my father to be a painter, and left it at that, returning to a seat amongst the angels and watching through the clouds over the grey city to see what would happen next.

At the same time, schoolteacher Muiris Gore living with his family on a remote island (probably the Aran Islands) off the coast of Galway, is devastated when son Sean succumbs to a mysterious illness which leaves him a vegetable while dancing on the beach with his sister Isabel. Unable to comprehend the senselessness of the incident, Isabel secretly blames herself for her brother’s predicament. The entangling of the characters fates begins when Coughlan’s last surviving painting is given to Muiris as a prize for a poem he wrote many years before.

Niall Williams. Photo by John Kelly/ John Kelly PR
Niall Williams. Photo by John Kelly/ John Kelly PR

Without giving away too much of the plot, there follows a series of coincidences, or, as William Coughlan would believe, moments of divine will, that allow the two stories to reach their apex in a meeting between Nicholas and Isabel. So many moments of chance, decisions lightly made and wrong turns lead to the only outcome possible.

 There was in the air at that moment that rare feeling of healing, of things lifting and coming together, of the story being carried suddenly forward, the great whoosh on which everything suddenly rises and flows, and you know a great spirit is somewhere watching down

The inevitability of their meeting is the crux of the novel, but the novel is also a meditation on love in all its forms. Love of God, of a parent, a child, a sibling – along with the limitations of love, its darkness, its joy and its tragedies. While this may be Nicholas and Isobel’s story, it is the other characters musings on their own relationships that weave in and out of the main tale creating a fabric shot through with colour and warmth. We learn how Nicholas’ dour, depressed mother once passionately courted his father wearing a yellow dress and how Margaret Gore’s short, stunning letter to Muiris secured his heart.

Dear Muiris dear, dear, dear, Take me away with you. Your love, Margaret

Each characters reminiscence illuminates another characters history or as Williams puts it, ‘the pieces fall together even when they belong to different puzzles’. Familial love is as ardently depicted as romantic love – the love Nicholas has for his father is as pure and true and consuming as that which he feels for Isabel and grief, when it comes brings equal pain

Tears fell from my father’s eyes into the sink and were lost in the suds. My mother had died into the deep sleep of a while jarful of tablets, but as we stood in the kitchen now it seemed it had been grief itself that was sleeping and was only now waking. The more my father washed, the more his tears flowed, and mine with them, both of us standing there, father and son, unable to speak and washing dishes like the loudest declarations of love.

Grief and loss are not shied away from, but Williams believes that the power of love can ease our pain and this slow moving love story becomes an exaltation of love itself. It is lyrical, poetic and magical and when that magic literally arrives, it is welcomed and not out of place.

The Aran Islands
The Aran Islands

The language and imagery in this novel are truly beautiful. I highlighted so many passages as the beauty of the prose flowed over me. Nicholas describes his father going for a swim

I hold his towel and he walks his high frailty into the water, his ribcage and shoulders like a twisted jumble of coat hangers in an empty suit bag. His toes curve up off the stones, off the ends of his arms he seems to carry invisible bags

while a single bachelor’s house has

the smell of air freshener that betrayed a life of disappointed love

This is an exquisitely written slow love story, showing the reader how two separate lives are moving inexplicably towards one another through the twists and turns of fate, acts of God and magical miracles. It is compelling and poetic, like an epic poem or a fable, its lyrical grace captivating and tantalising and suggesting all the way through that there may not even be a happy ending. For, as Margaret Gore wishes she had told her daughter

In love everything changes, and continues changing all the time. There is no stillness, no stopped clock of the heart in which the moment of happiness holds forever, but only the constant whirring forward motion of desire and need, rising and falling, falling and rising, full of doubts then certainties that moment by moment change and become doubts again.

Irish literary fiction is often lyrical and poetic, but Williams has gone one step further. His story is as turbulent and unruly as the Irish weather and firmly rooted in the Irish landscape, creating a powerfully fatalistic and feverishly emotional tale of magic, wonder and love that is completely unforgettable.

Read On: Kindle for iPad

Number Read: 63

Number Remaining: 683

Ireland Month Irish Literature The 746

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Cathy746books View All →

I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!

14 Comments Leave a comment

  1. Beautiful review, Cathy. I’d never heard of this author until his most recent book, History of the Rain, appeared on the Booker longlist. I like the sound of the meditative tone here, and the quotes give a real feel for the style. (Funnily enough, the quote on tears falling from the father’s eyes reminds me of a passage from Mary Costello’s Academy Street).

    Have you read any others by Williams as he seems to have a reasonable body of work behind him now?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Fantastic review, Cathy. I don’t know if it’s the sort of book that would appeal to me personally, but your review is superb. I remember when this book came out; there was quite a buzz about it. Don’t know if it won any prizes, but it sounds like it should have been a contender.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I noticed the numbers at the bottom of your review, as in books read, books remaining, and I thought, gosh, that’s about ten years worth of reading! (All the time, of course, trying NOT to think of MY pile, which is comparable, especially if you include Kindle books – but at least they’re tucked out of sight!) Do you think you’ll get through every one, or will you just be happy to get them to a manageable level? (Whatever that is!) My problem is, I read them, take them round to the charity shop – then buy more, often from the charity shop, or get ARCs – it’s never-ending! My argument is that I don’t drink or smoke, so books are my vice! And do you have any books there you really can’t see yourself ever reading? I don’t, I think I’d read every one I own, as long as I was in the right mood for it, of course. I just so admire your dedication to that pile! And it gives me hope for my own TBR, too, of course.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think if the pile was at least under 200 I would be happier for sure! When I started my blog I didn’t know about ARCs which is probably a good thing!! There are a few books I know I am dreading – Infinite Jest for one but I would like to think that if I thought highly enough of a book to buy it then I should at least read it!

      Like

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