Author Biography: Niall Williams lives in County Clare, Ireland.
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The Fall of Light
Chapter OneIn an autumn long ago, the Foleys crossed the country into the west like the wind that heralds winter. Where exactly they had come from is uncertain. The family's origins vanish in the lost pages of the country's history. It was in the County Wicklow, or perhaps Carlow. There was Francis Foley and his four sons. They rode horses through the night, travelling with all their possessions in raggle-taggle fashion, leading a small cart on which lay a large wooden telescope. The midnight creaking of the cartwheels and the clattering of the hooves on the road stirred those who slept on the edges of their beds in thin dreams. The Foleys fled through the fields of Tipperary and across the wide green of all that country until they reached the river. Then they stopped and slept beside their horses beneath the hidden moon of that October, their breaths misting on the darkness like visions and their eyes in sleep seeing the home forever lost to them now.
The father did not sleep. He lay back on the cart and unfurled the green blanket to look at the telescope they had stolen from the landlord's house, and for which they were now fugitive. He ran his fingers down the polished mahogany and up to the brass rim that held the eyepiece. He did not know its history. He did not know it to be one of the treasures of that science. For Francis Foley it was simply the means by which to see the parts of the universe he would otherwise not see. It was something which he had taken in an act of revenge. Within it lay the limitlessness of space, the way to feel freed from the narrow confines of the history of that country. For amidst the stars there were no landlords.
Francis looked over at his sleeping sons. None of them were yet out of their teens. Teige, the youngest, was twelve years old. As a boy he had grown with a gift for horses. He knew them intuitively. He knew more than men five times his age and yet in sleep lay with the innocent posture of a child who curls beneath the canopy of the night, certain the skies watch over him with goodness. Finan and Finbar, the twins, were sixteen years, simple and distant and still sharing the one soul. While their father watched them they moved in the blanket of a sour dream, first one and then the other kicking at the same frightening vision as if it were a ball and could fly off across the dark. Tomas, at nineteen the eldest, was not quite sleeping. He was already the barrel-chested, flaxen-curled replica of his father. He had the same turn of lip, the same even curve of eyebrow, that gave him the handsome expression of one who knows he is invincible. There was nothing from which Tomas Foley would ever step back. He had his father's recklessness, that stubborn, indefatigable belief inherited from grandfathers lost that a Foley was as good as anyone and better than most. He did not sleep, he lay and watched his horse sleeping, and when it stirred or a sudden quivering passed along the muscles of its neck, he spoke to it from where he lay on the wet grass until its ease returned and the strangeness of the place was forgotten.
Francis Foley turned from them. He angled himself up in the dark on the cart that held all their possessions in the world. He was a large man in a small time, or so he believed, and his frame made the wagon creak. A tin pot fell free to the ground, and the red fox that was circling through the copse of sallies skirted away. The old man did not pay it any attention. His mind was away. He had lifted and propped the telescope at an angle to the heavens and now stretched and lay sideways so he could tilt his head under the eyepiece. Then he looked up into the vastness of space, watching for the clouds to move and reveal the stars where some imagined all lives were explained. When the boys woke they watched the dawn like a caress travelling the heavily misted veil of the river valley, and they supposed that they were near the landscape of their new home. Their father gestured them to breakfast, and they stood around the grassy space where they had passed the night and ate hunks of bread. A mist rain was falling softly. Softly the air was moving in opaque windblown patterns that the previous night Francis Foley had convinced himself tasted of the sea. He had never seen the Atlantic. His understanding of the country's geography was that across the plains of Tipperary the land grew more rocky and wild and the population more sparse. He believed that in the west was a place beyond magistrates and bailiffs and agents, a landscape unruly, shaped by sea storms and where, like many a man whose soul was full, he would find a place to live in that was empty.
But he had not calculated correctly. When he squinted into the mist that obscured the width of the river that morning, he feared that they were not halfway across Ireland.
"The country is enormous," he said. He spoke in Irish, his words dropped into the air around his silent sons. "The mapmakers have it wrong. It is a plot. They have drawn the country small to make us feel small."
He looked at where he wanted the sky to brighten and urged it to do so with the set expression of his face. He wanted the mist to lift and tried to stare it away, then he asked his sons if they could smell the sea.
The twins sniffed the air and smelled the deer that were not far up the river. Teige looked at Tomas, who was angled forward on his horse, and like him he pressed his face outward to kiss the invisible. He paused a moment, then sat back.
"Is that the sea?" he said.
The old man did not know. The scent of the morning was not bitter as he had expected. There was no salt in the air, and although he told his sons this was a victory, that their discovery of the size of the country was heartening, his spirit fell with the awareness of his own ignorance. The river Shannon, which on the map in the landlord's house where he had seen it was a thin blue line snaking southwest-ward to the sea, was that October morning a wide grey swirling torrent whose width was unknown.
"If we follow it, we will be too far south. We will cross it," said the father.
He said it and broke away from the breakfast, as if between words and action there was not the slightest room for hesitation or debate. Not the slightest room in which one of the sons might have said, "Father, shouldn't we wait and find a bridge?" For they knew their father well and lived in the shadow of him like smaller animals. They could not take the bridge for the same reason that they did not cross the country by its main roads, for the telescope would be seen.
None of them could swim. There were three horses, the great chestnut that Tomas rode, the grey gelding upon whose back the twins sat together, and the black pony of Teige. The cart was pulled by a long-haired mule. In the poor rain-light of that dawn, the Foleys rode down to the water's edge. The river ran past them, laughing. The horses caught the flash of the salmon silvering beneath and flared their nostrils and stamped at the bank and were stilled but not calmed by Teige. He dismounted and talked to each of them.
"It is not deep, it is only fast," said the father, though he could not know and could not see the far bank. He had drawn from the mound on the cart a collection of ropes.
"Tomas!" He called the boy without looking at him. His eldest son came quickly and took one end of the rope.
"There," the father said, and pointed to one of the twisted trees that grew there.
Tomas secured the rope. Teige and the twins watched him in admiration. He had a kind of cool expertise, as if nothing in the physical world daunted him. He pulled taut the rope then and quickly mounted again and without pause plunged his horse into the river.
It took him in its swiftness and at once he was swept sidelong. But while his brothers watched with that mixture of horror and awe in which they always beheld him, Tomas yelled and yahooed, his eyes wide and white and his body on the horse twisting with the power of the river. His horse thrashed and flared and swam with its neck, pushing its nose upward into the air and tilting its eyes as if afraid to see below it. The river swept them away, but not far. And still Tomas worked the horse, riding it the way horses are ridden in dreams where the world is infirm and progress seems at the whim of God. He rode the river and let the rope run away behind him. He rode it while the twins cried urgent cheers and Teige looked away and felt only the terror of the crossing ahead of him. The old man stood mute and patient without the slightest evidence of fear or pride. Tomas rode himself invisible. He crossed into the midriver waters where they could no longer see him and passed as if through portals into some incorporeal world that existed beyond the midpoint of the Shannon River.
They did not see where he had gone. The mist hung between them. They did not hear him. His father stood like the ghost of a father and did not move and did not show his sons the slightest uncertainty. The rope that Tomas rode did not move but lay into the water. The sky had not brightened. The day was improperly born. The only sound was the sound of the old river running in that green place where the family would come asunder. No birds sang.
"Tomas!" Finbar shouted. Finan roared, "Tomas!" "Stop it!" their father said. "He cannot hear you."
They stood there and waited. The world aged in them another bit, each of the younger brothers feeling the impotency of their roles in the drama of their family, mute witnesses to stubbornness and folly. They waited for their father to ride into the river and save Tomas, but he did not move. The rope was loose in Shannon. The twins sank down on the ground. The old man's eyes stared at the wall of the mist as though he could burn it away, as though he didn't need anyone or anything and that the rescue of Tomas was in his gift and would happen without his moving from that place by the shore. They waited an impossible time.
Then the rope stretched taut.
They saw it lift and watched the line of it rise and drop the dripping river water back into the river. The old man moved quickly. He laid a hand on it and shook it and tested it for firmness. Then he tied another to the tree there and brought it over to the twins. "Here. Go on, you," he said. "By the rope. Bring this one."
The twins looked at each other and half grinned, both at the danger and at the opportunity to imitate their eldest brother. They pulled back their shoulders and put out their chins and were like minor versions of the father.
"Go on, Tomas has made it easy for you," said the old man. "By the rope, go."
He stood and watched, and carrying the second rope, they rode down into the water, trailing behind them a line loose and wavering. The gelding tried to swim with its head impossibly high. It angled its long nose upward and snorted and opened its eyes wide and baleful and at first jumped at the current washing against it. Teige called to the horse. He said sounds in no language until the twins and the horse were gone out of sight into the wet brume and the only sign of them was the second rope running backward out of the unseen.
Then there was stillness on that bank once more. After a time the second rope was pulled taut. Now two parallel lines stretched, bridge-like, over the river.
Quickly the old man tied Teige's black pony to the cart. Then, by ropes and a leather belt, he attached the pony and the mule to one of the two ropes so the cart was linked on either side to the airy bridge that led into the mist. He called his son to get up and ride the pony and calm the mule and coax them into the rushing river. But Teige did not want to move. He had sat down on the ground and was turned away from the river. He was running a finger in the brown mud.
"Teige, come. Now." The father's voice was large and full and like a thing solid in the air. Teige sat.
"Teige?" the old man said again, and saw his son turn his face farther away as if to study some distant corner of the mist. The father said nothing for a moment. He looked up in the air, then he cursed loudly.
But Teige did not move. The river ran.
"I tell you now for the last time. Get up, come on." The old man sat on the cart with the reins in his hands. He turned from his youngest son and looked away at the grey river and the rope lines running across it.
Still Teige did not move.
"You are afraid. Have you not seen your brothers cross it?" "I don't want to." "Because you are a coward."
"I am not. It won't work. The pony knows it. Look." He pointed to the black pony, whose ears were back and whose sides heaved.
"She is afraid because you are. It's your fear, not hers. Did you see your brothers? They were not afraid. Get over here. Now, I tell you."
Teige sat on the mud and studied the patterns he drew with his finger. His brown hair fell forward over his brow. The drizzle of rain made his cheeks glisten. His eyes were still, the world reduced to the two feet of mud about him. As if such were a door in the world for his escape, he stared at it. Then a blow knocked him on his face.
Teige did not cry out or weep. He lay with his eyes open and his mouth bleeding into the ground. His pony stamped and turned and looked about with bewilderment.
"Get up," his father said. "Get up now and get on that pony and lead it into the river."
The old man turned away from him and studied the thin light in the air and cursed wordlessly. Teige did not get up. His father went over and went to kick at him but stopped short.
"Get up," he said again in Irish, a single word in a sharp whisper. He was looking away, looking at some place where he raged against the world for not fitting his map of it. His blue eyes burned and his brow furrowed and his lips pressed against one another in a thin line of resolve; he would make things fit.
"I want to stay here. Leave me here," Teige said. "Because you are a coward? I will not," Francis Foley said. "I will knock you into the river if you don't get up."
"I will stay here and wait for my mother!" the boy shouted. "Your mother is gone. She has left us." "She has not!"
"She doesn't want to be with us," he lied. "She has gone off and now there is only us. Now do what I tell you and get up!" said the father. He waited a moment, and though it was brief it was long enough for him to consider going back to try to find her and then for pride and the knowledge that the law was pursuing them to banish the thought. No, they would go on. They would find a new home. He would make happen what he told her, then go and gather her up and bring her there and she would see. None of this he said, for he could not reveal his own rashness. "Get up, eirigh!" was all he said.
Teige said nothing and the air stilled and in the stillness there was only the beating of their hearts and the rain now falling. The pony's tail whisked the morning, her foot stamped the ground.
Excerpted from The Fall of Light by Niall Williams Copyright © 2001 by Niall Williams. Excerpted by permission.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Estate gardener Francis Foley becomes upset with his absentee employer. He sets fire to the manor house and steals a telescope from the estate where he worked. Taking his four sons ranging in age from twelve to nineteen, Francis flees across Ireland. However, fortune fails to shine on the five males as Francis is swept away by the current of a river they were crossing. His traveling companions assume their father died. The four lads continue the journey. After meeting Blath, Tomas joins the New York Fenian movement. Teige becomes a Canadian horse ranch owner, but his love for Elizabeth appears doomed. Finbar marries a Gypsy and soon becomes head of her band. His twin Finan goes to a monastery in France before becoming a missionary in Africa. THE FALL OF LIGHT is an epic nineteenth century family drama that follows the wanderlust of four siblings across the globe. Each subplot is cleverly intended to serve as a lyrical metaphoric symbolism of Ireland. However, though the design is often brilliant and for the most part accomplishes the objective, some subplots seem unnecessary and slow down the adventure. Still fans of sweeping Irish tales will enjoy Niall Williams¿ latest novel. Harriet Klausner
Covering a span of years that encompasses the Potato Famine, this is the tale of Francis Foley, his wife Emer, and their four sons, as their lives drift apart and re-converge in 19th century Ireland. At times I felt that the plot held a few too many coincidences to be veracious, but that is the single factor which kept this book, which I gave four and a half stars, from being a five star read. The prose itself was laden in pathos, gorgeous. I fell in love with Niall Williams’ writing in a way I have not fallen in love in quite some time. The style was absolutely perfect for the subject matter. It is very seldom that I quote from novels in my reviews, but this time I really want to share: “He thought of the old man’s boast that their country was bigger than the map-makers had drawn it and he suddenly saw it so. He saw the vastness of the sea was itself part of that wild country as was its great and million-starred sky and he dropped to his knees there in the sand and felt the despair of loss. He put his hands together to pray and turned to the constellations that were cold and impassive and falling through the darkness ages away, and, knowing no God, who knew him, he looked to Pegasus in the south and to it prayed the wordless prayers that rose off his soul.” (page 80) “He imagined them, those gaunt figures with ghosthood already immanent, their long thin arms holding cradled the bundle of their world, their hunger and frailty, the mewling of their children, the ragged faded worn quality of their spirits as they journeyed homeless toward the impossible idea of home.” (page 224) A reader who wants a plot that moves quickly towards a crashing climax will not find that here. This book is carried by luminous wordsmithing and characters that draw you along on their wrenching journey. For the right reader in the right frame of mind, it is an unforgettable experience, and I highly recommend it.