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On the surface, History Of The Rain is beautifully crafted. Ruth Swain, probably twenty-something and a university graduate, lies in bed in the attic of her family's County Clare home, quietly dying. Probably. Perhaps to fill the boredom, she decides to tell her family history. Armed with a few facts, she invents and hypotesizes; creates dialogue, meetings, motives... She has access to her father's library of books, numbering over 3,000, which she references painstakingly throughout the story; and she has an obsession with the Salmon of Knowledge. Ruth has a lively, playful voice and engages in direct conversation with the reader.

Just as some Irish writers - William Trevor and John B Keane come to mind - provide a straight narration of a village of idiots, here we find Ruthie taking ordinary, modern people and trying to cast them in the humorous stereotypes of yesterday's novels. Indeed, the title "History of the Rain" might even have been chosen as a kind of opposite to John McGahern's "That They May Face The Rising Sun". Ruth christens characters based on their traits or over-used phrases, but there's no sense that these nicknames have a generalisability beyond the narrative. They may be portrayed as imbecilic from time to time, but only to suit Ruth's higher narrative purpose.

Sadly, the higher narrative purpose lacks direction. We hop, skip and jump all over time and space, but there is precious little storyline. We are led to expect some kind of cataclysmic tragedy - and how we are made to wait for it - that when it comes it is an anti-climax.

Individual passages can be funny, apposite, meaningful. But taken together they are pretty forgettable. The family relationships can get quite blurry, which is an achievement for a family that is essentially nuclear. The constant references to Irish mythology and the Irish financial crisis never seem to lead anywhere. They simply lend an air of both the erudite and the contemporary without ever seeming to have a point. Actually, towards the very end, we do see why Ruth might have such a fixation with salmon and rain, but it feels forced.

Plotless novels can work - and Niall Williams even puts this thought into Ruth's pen near the end. But they have to rely on depth of characterisation; personal development; lyricism; power of language. Something. Anything. What that "anything" might be is just not sufficiently clear in History Of The Rain.

Perhaps familiarity breeds contempt; perhaps a reader who had never come across the Irish village novel might see something of value in here. To this reader, though, it felt like a battle of attrition to keep the pages turning.
 
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I'd read some very good things about this book on a couple of book blogs, but you've definitely made me think again Mr HG if I really want to read it.  Thanks for, as ever, cutting straight to the chase!

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Thanks for continuing right through it Mr. HG - I foundered rather early on at the salmon fishing part all mixed in with Lawrence Olivier.  I found it sometimes charmingly irreverent when the villagers were being described but it wasn't enough to keep me going.:(

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