BOOK REVIEW: Tales of fractured souls, lies, dealers in flesh ... and kindness
Irish writer Donal Ryan’s From a Low and Quiet Sea weaves three stories that converge in an extraordinary finale
Beyond the prolific John Boyne, a current favourite of discerning readers, who so magnificently captured the Irish national character in The Heart’s Invisible Furies, a bold new generation of Irish writers is emerging.
From Sally Rooney, whose enormously successful Normal People was named “Best Novel” at the Costa Book Awards, to Lisa McInerney, Anne Griffin, Niamh Boyce and Anna Burns, the winner of last year’s Booker Prize for Milkman, there’s a wealth of contemporary Irish stories demanding to be read.
One of the most unpredictable and finely crafted is Donal Ryan’s From a Low and Quiet Sea, which made the Booker longlist last year. His fourth novel, it reads at first like a collection of three stories whose clever connection only becomes clearer in the final chapter.
The opening section is distinctly un-Irish. Farouk, a Syrian doctor, recounts the story of how he made the decision to leave his country. Determined to shelter his daughter from the approaching terror, he tells her the gunfire she hears is the noise made by a machine used to frighten birds away from the crops. It’s a scene reminiscent of Roberto Benigni’s film Life is Beautiful, in which the father convinces his son that their internment in a concentration camp is merely a game. Fate, Ryan reminds the reader, renders us powerless to protect our loved ones.
“The war had come slowly,” Farouk says, “had accreted around them rather than exploded at their door.” A flogged woman, no more than 20, is a warning of the horrors that lie ahead should they choose to stay.
But it’s the new recruit, a fat German who speaks faltering Arabic, excited in his new position and “the dream he was living”, who drives him to seek out the services of a trafficker. Recalling his father’s words, “Be wary of prescription and proscription, of unyielding belief”, the image of a crucified boy seals Farouk’s transaction with the “dealer in flesh”. What follows is a terrifying image of a crewless migrant ship being wrecked in a violent storm. Is survival possible after unimaginable loss? It’s a question Ryan explores with fluid sensitivity.
In a bold and unexpected shift, we meet Lampy, 23, who lives at home with his mother near Limerick and drives a bus for the old age home down the road. Far removed from the horrors of war, Lampy is driven to distraction by his love for an ex-girlfriend and by a general sense of malaise that is rather Western in tone — he finds his life dull and unrewarding, he’s never met his father, he’s filled with an undefinable sexual longing.
An old woman at the home cautions him, “What’s in the past can’t be changed and what’s to come can’t be known and you can’t give your life to worrying. Sure you can’t. All you have to do is be kind and you’ll have lived a good life.”
Kindness is not a quality possessed of middle-aged John, Ryan’s third and highly unlikeable protagonist. In a grim confessional he asks forgiveness of God. His tally of sins is short, he says, “though each one might be made of a hundred parts or more”.
John repeats a frightening reality of our age: “If you say something enough times, the repetition of it makes it true. Any notion you like, no matter how mad it seems, can be a fact’s chrysalis … Constant, unflagging, loud repetition completes your notion’s metamorphosis into fact.” That’s how a lie he told replicated itself, becoming a monster virus that turned into a terrible crime for which he bears responsibility.
A moving tale of three very different men, each displaced and searching for something they have lost, it’s not mere unlikely coincidence that ties their narratives together. Rather, it’s the overlapping edges of their lives as revealed in the haunting finale that forms the novel’s linchpin.