It is set mainly in Dublin, and that pushy, energetic city very much elbows its way into the cast of characters – in this, if in few other ways, it reminds me of the last Dublin-centred Irish debut novel I read, Trevor Byrne's Ghosts and Lightning. Both have central characters, but are also essentially ensemble productions, in which the wider life of Dublin is constantly present. This is perhaps more obvious in Gilligan's novel because it is told through multiple voices. Indeed there are several moments when we hear someone describing a person and suddenly realise it is a character we already knew, or thought we did, seen from yet another angle. I find this a fascinating technique, constantly reminding us that nobody is of a piece, or unchanging, or comes across the same way to any two other people. It does mean the reader needs to stay alert; this is definitely a novel that can be enjoyed on first reading, but only if you keep your wits about you, as you would have to in a real-life conversation, on which I often felt I was eavesdropping.
We first meet Dirk, the novel's protagonist, trying to commit suicide for reasons that are not then clear either to us or, possibly, to him. For the question from which the book takes its title is, or so it seems to me, what is it that causes happiness? Why is Dirk sometimes experiencing moments of pure happiness and at other times plunged in despair, when there does not seem to be that much difference in the conditions of his life? And if one could find what causes it, would there be a way of inducing it?
These are questions which don't perhaps crop up in novels as often as one might expect. Which is odd when you think that most of us have been in similar situations to Dirk's at the summit of Croagh Patrick, outside the moment of pure happiness his girlfriend Angela is in:
"Isn't this just perfect?"
Before you can reply, she's thrown her arms around you. "You know, I can't think of another time when I felt so happy. But it's more than that. I'm just…. overjoyed. Me and you and this mountain". She laughs, throwing her head back, her hair tousled, tangled and beautiful.
"Me, you and this mountain," you repeat, wanting to touch her hair but instead you look past her.
It would be unlike this novel to suggest any easy answers to this question, though its protagonists certainly try some that can be guaranteed not to work, like drugs, casual sex and alcohol. Various cryptic characters appear in a Thomas Mann sort of way from time to time – a street entertainer in Rome, a barfly in Dublin – but though they have their own recipes, none is as pithy or as accurate as Angela's mother, with her advice, "It'll come back. Happiness always does." What comes over, I think, is that there is no sure way of bringing happiness on; all we can and indeed must do is recognise it when we see it, make the most of its transient presence and remember that it will indeed be back.
It is there, on and off, throughout this novel, via Gilligan's dry humour and rich cast of minor characters (Aunty Sheila the Obsessive Cake Baker is particularly memorable). Yet in the end this is a serious novel, for the unpredictability and elusiveness of happiness is a serious theme. The more credit to her that "serious" never equals "heavy going".