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.
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 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.
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