You might call this a fairy tale for angst-ridden intellectuals but you'd be wrong. True, Stephen Griffin does come across as something of a Cinderella rescued from the ashes of despair by a Princess Charming; and there's a fairy godmother of sorts, too. Set in Ireland, the story offers just the lightest whisper of literal magic. Still, no fairy tale carries the built-in challenges Williams takes on here, for instance a cast that comprises the gentlest, most vulnerable array of characters to hit the page since Bambi. And no fairy tale uses language so achingly perceptive and so wise, with insights often slightly off-kilter, approaching from unexpected directions. Niall Williams's second novel (after Four Letters of Love, which elicited ecstatic reviews) performs a magic of its own by breathing life into three people Philip, Stephen, and Gabriella.
Philip Griffin blames himself for his wife's and daughter's accidental deaths. His son, Stephen, now 32, tall and silent and intense, is a history teacher living in a small damp cottage on the Irish coast. Raised by his father, he has learned from him the fine skills of walking in empty rooms and being aware of the ghosts. When Philip, who always anticipated affliction, detects that Stephen has fallen in love, he expects the worst. Reluctantly, he prays to live rather than die, so that he can help Stephen through the disaster, for he loved Stephen as a wall loves a garden. And Gabriella Castoldi, the Venetian violinist Stephen loves, is no barrel of laughs herself, with an expectancy of grief that overshadows her life and all those she meets.
This review cannot do justice to Williams's portrayal of how love can finally turn lifelong winter into spring. ¦Maude McDaniel is a freelance writer in Cumberland, Maryland.