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The Fall of Light    by Niall Williams order for
Fall of Light
by Niall Williams
Order:  USA  Can
Warner, 2003 (2002)
Hardcover, Paperback
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

The Fall of Light follows the individual misfortunes of Foley family members across Ireland and across continents. When we first meet them the family has already inexplicably split, leaving the mother, Emer, behind. The father, Francis, fell instantly for beautiful and fiery Emer, brought up on 'legends of the stars', but life has not been easy for them. Francis flees with his sons in search of a better life, after burning the mansion of the absentee landowner, for whom he works, and stealing a telescope. Francis is impulsive, stubborn and angry; none of these uncommon as Irish traits. But he is also a loving father and husband and can be compassionate, and give the shirt off his back, to those who have only a little less than he does himself.

The separation of the family continues during a river crossing mishap, in which Francis is swept away, to be replaced by a swan. Then the eldest son Tomas is lost when love strikes his 'heart like a spear' in Limerick, twin Finan disappears into guilt and African penitence, and his brother Finbar joins and ultimately leads a gypsy band and a mer-girl across Europe. The youngest (most interesting and most like his mother) son Teige searches unsuccessfully for Emer, and eventually re-discovers his father, and then Tomas. They share a brief time together on the island refuge of Scattery off the West coast before despair hurls Tomas away from them again, this time as an immigrant to America.

As family members lose, and journey far from, each other, they often stargaze as they dream and imagine what the others are doing. Anxiety is increased by the fact of the potato blight and famine and the desolation that follows. Tomas in America sees in his dreams 'Death move across the fields like a summer shadow and bodies falling beneath it like ribs of hay at a scythe' and gives up hope. Teige tells stories of the constellations to an invisible audience of brothers. Descriptions are consistently lyrical, the author painting in surroundings in sure and clear watercolors ... 'morning opened with ponderous clouds of pewter coming eastward across the sky.'

The story of the Foleys is typical of the Irish of the time (they were perhaps even fortunate in comparison to many families), and resonates now with other folk who are scattered across the world by war or want. The Fall of Light is a tale of those who follow their tattered dreams, and of the power of love and of family ties, even in desolation.

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