From a Low and Quiet Sea by Donal Ryan [book review]

Low and Quet SeaWere 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.

I’m not the only blogger to have enjoyed this book. Check out the reviews at A Life in Books and

About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on August 28, 2018, in Book Reviews, Irish authors and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 40 Comments.

  1. Great review! I think From a Low and Quiet Sea is one of those books that will leave the reader with something new and amazing every time they read it. Loved it.

  2. I’ve only read The Spinning Heart, a book club choice which proved to be a good fit for our group. As an author, Ryan appears to have the ability to weave different ‘stories’ together in such a way as to make them feel very connected. It’s one of the things that struck me about TSH, and it sounds as if the same is true here, particularly given your comments on that final section.

    • Exactly so Jacqui. He doesn’t have to do as much weaving in the new novel because it doesn’t have such a big cast of characters but its still nicely executed

  3. Like you, I know Ryan only because of his Booker nominations. I have scheduled The Spinning Heart for next month’s book group and this is sitting on my shelf waiting for an opportune moment.

  4. You did a beautiful job in reviewing this, Karen. I was so afraid of giving too much away! The contrast between Farouk and Lampy was so marked, such outstanding writing. One of the things Donal Ryan did which impressed the hell out of me is to create each character so powerfully. That grandfather, with his mouth like a dump truck, and yet at the end, scooping his grandson up with such tenderness…I loved how it all wove together, and how Ryan didn’t take 500 pages to needlessly elaborate each element. I found it perfect in every way, and as I continue to plow through the Man Booker long list it remains my favorite.

  5. I love how I number of books in the last year or two are focusing on the Syrian refugee experience. With all the craziness that Trump brings to the world, I think having fiction remind us of the atrocities that affect people individually is really important. Sort of like disrupting the news cycle and getting back to things that we shouldn’t have forgotten so soon.

  6. That’s a lovely review. I read All We Shall Know and I really liked it. He’s got a way with getting to the heart of human interactions. I’ll definitely read more of his novels.

  7. Great review! I am putting this one on the list.

  8. I’ve read two of his, The Spinning Heart and The Thing about December, and I liked them both. Now I have another one to seek out, thank you!

  9. It’s the only one I’ve read by Ryan but I loved it – the ending was clever without feeling contrived.

  10. I’m looking forward to reading this. He’s such a fantastic writer (and a lovely man!)

    • Youve met him? I heard he had gone back to work in the civil service but then a different report said he was now lecturing ?

      • He read at HomePlace and is very down to earth. I think he went back to work briefly but now lectures at University of Limerick. Do you think this could win the Booker?

        • Tough question Cathy because I haven’t read any of the other longlisted books yet (they take forever to get into the library). I somehow think he will get to the shortlist but not win …..

  11. I’m really looking forward to this, he writes so beautifully but his stories linger too. Great review, Karen. I’ll look out for the grumbling busload of pensioners.

  12. Thanks for the link, Karen. I’m so glad you enjoyed this. I think you nailed it with ‘an engrossing story in exquisitely evocative prose’. I loved that grumbling scene too. You could hear them all so clearly!

  13. This is sitting on the library pile at the moment and The Spinning Heart is scheduled for the Book Group in October, so I’m glad to hear how strongly you have been drawn to both. I’m pushing it a bit by scheduling another Irish writer for the reader’s group because we’ve had a plethora over the last year but when Ryan turned up on the Booker for the second time I thought we should explore his work.

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