Were it not for the Booker Prize I’m not sure I would have ever experienced Donal Ryan’s work.
He was long listed in 2013 with The Spinning Heart, winning The Guardian first book award the same year. Narrated by 21 victims of Ireland’s economic crash; it reveals the impact of the collapse of the Celtic Tiger on the inhabitants of an unnamed rural town. In my review I described it as “technically adroit … with pitch perfect characterisation.”
That same description can be equally applied to his latest novel, From a Low and Quiet Sea, which is on this year’s Booker Prize long list.
I thought it would be hard to beat The Spinning Heart but Ryan has done it with From a Low and Quiet Sea .
The cast of characters has been significantly trimmed. We’re now focused on three men all of whom have something missing in their lives: a Syrian refugee, a crooked lobbyist and a young man dealing with the heartache of a lost love.
Each man is given their own section in the novel.
Farouk is a doctor who escapes from Syria with his wife and daughter in the hope of finding a more stable, peaceful life in western Europe. Too late, they discover they have been duped and instead of being let to safety are left adrift at sea in the midst of a storm. Ryan apparently wrote this story after hearing a news report about a Syrian doctor who paid what he thought was a high-end smuggler to get him out of the country. Though short, this was an engrossing story in exquisitely evocative prose
They speak to each other through tunnels that extend from their roots . . . sending their messages cell by cell . . . If a tree is starving, its neighbour will send it food. No one knows how this can be, but it is . . . They know the rule, the only one that’s real and must be kept. What’s the rule? You know. I’ve told you lots of times before. Be kind.
The style and pace change markedly for section two which features Lampy, a young man who is pining after the girl he loved who dumped him when she went off to college. He works in a care home, occassionally driving the old inhabitants to their medical appointments. He lives with his mother and grandfather Dixie – a man who loves taking people in the pub down a peg of two. Lampy is frequently frustrated by the old man yet also loves him, feeling “ a strange thrill of pride. His grandfather was wicked; when he was in form his tongue could slice the world in two.”
And finally we get to John, a ruthless man involved in very shady dealings, who is full of remorse for long-ago relationship with a younger woman. He tells his own story through the medium of the confessional, revealing how his family life fell apart when his brother died and he became obsessed with a young woman he met in a bar.
At first it seems these stories have no relationship to each other. It’s only in the fourth – and final – section that they are drawn together in a way that surprised me. To say more would be to spoil the experience of this book for other readers.
From a Low and Quiet Sea is a brief book but it’s one that lingers in the mind. Every character has a unique voice, from melancholy to matter of fact confession but there is also humour – there’s a wonderfully funny scene on the bus where the old people grumble because the vehicle breaks down. It’s so good I’m tempted to read it again soon which is something that I rarely do.