Only Say the Word, by Niall Williams

The frame narrative of this intriguing and sad novel is a writer, “Jim Foley”, who has,

“…written all these pages to face something in [himself]… To face the fear of losing you, of losing my life, that lay within me through autumn and winter. It is what writers do, imagine and feel the pain of others…here then, in these pages is mine…Here is the truth told in a story.” 

Only Say the Word, by Niall Williams: It made me cry buckets

The story that he tells is of his wife who had died, which led to him being unable to write any more.  He tries to deal with her death and his traumatized children, in the only ways he knows, which are awkward, strained, bitter and desperately loving.  As he says, he does not know how to be a father. He thinks of the words used in the Roman Catholic service before communion:  “Only say the Word, And I shall be healed”, but rather than hope that Christ’s blessing will make things better, because he has lost his faith, he hopes that expressing his pain in words will heal him.  He also hopes for one magical word or deed that will just put things back the way they were, a sort of ‘abracadabra’ for his life.

Distress and sadness

And so he starts writing again, a cathartic but distressing process.  He writes of how, after a miserable childhood filled with repressed emotion, he met his wife, the only woman who understood him. He writes of their life together in a small Irish town and how much they loved each other, in such a way that it gives the reader a knot in the throat. When he recounts how she died, only the most unfeeling reader would not grab the tissues for a wipe and blow. Worse still, his teenage daughter, who has been cheering him on in a matter-of-fact way, tries to kill herself.  This wakes him up to the reality that they have survived the worst that could happen:

“After, Hannah spoke to me and told me of her sadness, and how she missed you…I put the covers over her, and Jack curled close, and I said to them, ‘we will be all right.’”

Then, in the last two pages of the novel, we see that the entire narrative has been his attempt to confront the ghastly possibility of losing his wife. She, seeing the book finished, does not yet know the fear, desperation and sense of dislocation that he has confronted in the writing;

“You stand at my shoulder and look at the last pages. ’You call me Kate in this one?’ you say, and put a hand on my shoulder and then stroke the back of my head.”


Niall Williams (Photo:
Niall Williams (Photo:

Williams is an expert in precisely and honestly expressing the most human, most complex emotions. Even when writing about the most horrible occurrences, the most destructive cruelty, he never overdramatizes. He says in mature and elegant language what most people feel, but cannot pinpoint.

Williams has lately become quite fashionable as a leading Irish writer, but this novel should be read and reread not because he is in vogue, but because of the essential truths in it of which we should be reminded every so often.

For a review of Williams’ novel John, go here.