In a realm of higher purpose


FICTION:BOY AND MAN takes up the story of Jay and his grandfather, the Master, which began in Niall Williams's previous novel, Boy in the World, writes Derek Hand.

Jay is now living in Ethiopia, working in a hospital, while his grandfather remains in Ireland, recovering his memory after an accident. The narrative moves back and forth between these two locations, the distance and the disconnection between the characters slowly breaking down as their stories merge.

There are sub-plots and tangential characters, each in their own way revolving around and shining a light on the central tale. At one stage, a Reverend Holt, talking of Charles Dickens's A Mutual Friend, declares that its plot is as "improbable as Our Lord" with "so many voices in it" and it is, finally, "A book of death and renewal". This neatly self-referential declaration encapsulates the action and thrust of Williams's Boy and Man. No coincidence is too unlikely, no event too implausible. In a way, this serves to undermine the plot because any uncertainty as to the outcome - happy outcome - is thoroughly absent.

But perhaps, for Niall Williams, plot is not that important, merely a means for him to dwell upon and explore his particular view of the human predicament. By the close of the novel, the reader comes to see how each character is in some way connected to all the others, how no one individual is isolated or alone. God is a very real presence here: a very New Age God who is in abeyance only because people have lost faith in Him. The numerous references to Charles Dickens and to the work of Ernest Hemingway suggest, too, that larger more universal narratives are at work. And, of course, the obvious biblical resonances in the fate of Jay (as both a Christ figure and the returning prodigal son) are indicative of the author's determined wish to link his story to wider themes.

There is, though, a Forrest Gump quality to all the characters in this world, as they wander about, bumping into one another, having moments of existential angst, helping one another and moving on to the next encounter. The message, it seems, is the need to become passive - to let go of a blighted human wilfulness and desire. Only if this is done will good come in the end.

The language of the novel is consciously poetic, giving an underlying rhythm to the back-and-forth narrative. A difficulty, however, is that the words have no concrete link to the world they talk of, and are used instead to soften the hard edge of reality. Curiously, then, the poetry of the language employed reinforces a certain separation from the world rather than healing that rift.

Different moments in time generate different types of stories, reflecting perhaps the deepest desires and fears of both the writers and the readers of those stories at that point. In a contemporary world seemingly devoid of meaning, a dangerous place driven by hate, terror and violence, a story which celebrates the boundless human capacity for good and love appears to right the world's ills, to offer hope for a better tomorrow.

Such was the case with Niall Williams's previous novel, Boy in the World, and now with its sequel, he continues in his efforts to offer an optimistic perspective on human affairs. It might be naive and it certainly gives his writing a fairytale quality, but it is the story he chooses to tell. The ideas that bad things can happen to good people, that chance and chaos underpin our existence are - however fleetingly - dispelled in this fictional realm of purpose and higher design. Many people, one imagines, want to read stories like this one. And many people will.


Derek Hand is a lecturer in English in St Patrick's College, Drumcondra, Dublin. He has just co-edited a special issue of the Irish University Review on the work of Benedict Kiely

Boy and Man, By Niall Williams, Harper Collins, 295pp. £14.99