Novel of the week

As It Is In Heaven

Niall Williams <em>Picador, 315pp, £14.99</em>

At one point in Niall Williams's second novel, the central character, Stephen Griffin, abruptly resigns his teaching post in a small Irish town. "I am in love," he explains to the uncomprehending headmistress. The words sound "strangely childish and unreal" to her, having no place in a world "hardened by a thousand revelations of abuse and corruption and greed". This announcement by Griffin is also a statement of the author's manifesto - Williams's writing stands apart from the gritty urban realism of much contemporary fiction. This novel, like its successful predecessor Four Letters of Love, is concerned instead with love and nature and with a spirituality sharply at odds with the prevailing rationalist, secular culture.

At the start, the three main characters exist in different but similarly extreme states of isolation. Stephen's mother and sister have died in a car crash. While his father, Philip, stays on in Dublin, talking to his wife's ghost in a darkened room, Stephen attempts to escape his grief by leaving for a rural community on the west coast. Yet he, too, is mired in the past, immersing himself in the study of history. His life as a teacher is sterile and aimless. And then there is Gabriella Castoldi, a virtuoso violinist washed up in Ireland in an unconscious attempt to flee her unhappy Venetian childhood and the barrenness that is its legacy. The catalyst for each character's eventual redemption is music, specifically that played by Gabriella, which awakens Stephen's closed soul to the possibility of love, which in turn rouses Philip to a final act of parental sacrifice to ensure his son's happiness.

Despite the waverings and misunderstandings that hinder Stephen and Gabriella's evolving relationship, the reader never doubts the final outcome - the narrative presents no credible alternatives to their eventual union. Instead, the novel is an extended exploration of the mistrust and self-doubt that must be overcome before love can be experienced. Williams displays a fine understanding of the wounds the world can inflict. Yet the dominance of the psychological at the expense of story results in a slow and sometimes meandering read. We are watching a chess game. Williams moves his pieces around the board, and while we can be absorbed in the whys and wherefores of each move, we always know that White is going to triumph. The novel never involves us in the way it might were we to be made to believe in the possibility of Black prevailing.

This lack of narrative tension is balanced by the virtuosity of the prose. Williams's brand of magic realism has invited inevitable comparisons with Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but the enchanting otherworldliness of his rural Gaelic communities chimes more strongly with Bruce Chatwin's On the Black Hill. The most engaging character is Nelly Grant, a 60-year-old woman completely attuned to the mysteries and energy of the universe, who "looked like forty, wore green fingerless gloves and believed in the power of fruit". Her attempts to heal Stephen and Gabriella's problems through the surreptitious prescription of various foodstuffs constitute a charming subplot.

The sections narrated in this magical style are a joy, and were Williams to sustain this quality, the absence of narrative drive would not matter. As it is, he too often assumes a portentous, lyrical style which is less successful. He produces many original images and metaphors but then proceeds to examine them from every angle, wringing out every last nuance. Although his perceptions are, at times, striking, the result can be suffocating - the reader is forced to follow the author's vision, rather than being allowed the freedom and space to develop their own. A degree more confidence in allowing his writing to make its own way in the world would transform Williams into the master he clearly has the potential to be.

Phil Whitaker is fiction critic of the "New Statesman". His most recent novel is "Triangulation" (Phoenix House)