Four Letters of Love

In the list of topics for which my understanding is grossly inadequate, religious faith and love have to be right up at the top. These are twin mysteries, belonging to the lives of others.

With all self-protective instinct, I believed Niall Williams’ 1997 novel, Four Letters of Love to be a typically safe story when I pulled it from the shelf recently. The snippets I’d seen hinted at a gloriously written romance, but there was nothing to indicate that Williams’ prose would at times lure this reader into an almost trance-like state where I was allowed to close the pages believing that somehow I’d been graced with the experience of both great love and unshakable faith in a bit over two hundred and fifty pages.

And that would be putting it mildly. It would be unseemly and might spoil any fun were I to go on about how this novel works on an emotional and spiritual level. So I’ll just tell you a bit about the story.

Four Letters of Love is the story of parallel lives, those of Nicholas Coughlan and Isabel Gore, to be exact. Nicholas is the son of a Dublin man who one day announces to his family that he is leaving a comfortable position in civil service for life as a painter and, in order to practice his art,  must leave home for an indefinite while.

We come to know Nicholas as he matures, from a twelve year old boy caught in the maelstrom of seeking to please both of his parents while one seeks to please God and the other seeks refuge from reality, to a young man, confident in his own right to love and be loved. His is a story of change, of trial by fire and sorrow which carries in its longing both the foundation of solid familial love and an otherworldly awareness of love’s wide, inexplicable reach.

(It) seemed to me, God came to live in our house. He was not often spoken of, and was never addressed. And yet we knew He was there. Not exactly holy, not exactly prayerful, but a kind of presence. Like central heating, my mother said. When my father was gone, He stayed.

At the same time, we meet Isabel, daughter of the local schoolmaster and his devoted wife who live “on an island in the west.” Isabel is a wild girl, prone to walking in storms and appropriating self-punishments as her requisite due for being part of an incident that gravely incapacitates her brother.

When Isabel danced on the rock’s edge she felt the wind dance with her; she felt it touch her legs and run the danger through her. Her cheeks burned, her eyes fixed on the far sea and her hands down by her sides.

Isabel chafes at the restrictions her education requires, and veers into a passionate physical relationship with Peader, a man with a “worm in his winter rose. For nothing was as deeply set in the heart and mind of Peader O’Luing than the nagging suspicion that underneath all he was worthless.” Isabel’s story is also one of transformation, though her spiral is downward and takes her into the realm of self-loathing even as Nicholas’ journey does the opposite,  bringing him to a level of awareness which includes a decidedly supernatural element.

Angels, my father once said, must pass us in the street every day. They must be ordinary as birds, he said, and recognizable only in the brief moment of their connection to our lives. There was, according to this reasoning, a moment when you knew you were met by an angel and that whatever aid it gave you, however subtle and difficult to trace, your life was changed.

All of this loving and angelfire, in the wrong hands, could have been rendered  sentimental mush that would be as forgettable as it is unlikely. The Irish writer Niall Williams’ first novel is, for this reader, a little bit of a miracle. Though some of the narrative contains far flung imagery and flights of magical thinking, there is an earthy coherence to the story which had me thinking about the manner in which love in all its shapes and sizes operates ceaselessly within and around each life, as both the tangible and invisible expressions of its power continue to surprise and bind us together.

Some things do not bear much telling. I think my father knew this. I think he knew how words can sometimes flatten the deepest emotions or pin them like wild butterflies stunned out of magnificent flight, flimsiest souvenirs of what moved and colored air like silk. Better to imagine it.

Even better to read it.