Book Reviews

Strange Flowers by Donal Ryan — family life fractured

Cover image of Strange Flowers, a novel of love and loss set in Ireland, 
by Donal Ryan

Strange Flowers is the third novel i’ve read by Donal Ryan and though I enjoyed it, it didn’t have as much impact on me as The Spinning Heart or From A Low and Quiet Sea.

Set in a rural Irish community in the 1970s, this is a family story novel about love, loss and redemption. It begins in the aftermath of a discovery that twenty-year-old Molly Gladney has left her family home without warning. She leaves no note, no explanation for her parents and no hint about her intended destination.

As the years roll on without any news, Paddy and Kit fear they will never see their daughter again. All they can do is cope stoically with the uncertainty, losing a little part of their spirit with each passing year.

Paddy and Kit Gladney lived a solemn half-life of work and prayers and weakening hope, and the earth spun, and the moon phased, and the rain fell, and the sun shone, and their hearts grew heavier and heavier with grief.

Five years later Moll returns to Knockgowny, her homecoming as sudden and unexpected as her departure. She’s full of stories about the years she spent in London, her work in a hotel and all the people she met. But she skirts around the burning questions: why did she leave home? And more significantly “why hadn’t she been in touch?

… how in the name of all that’s good and holy she could put her poor parents through five long years of living death, and flounce back in tht door smokng fags and spouting stupid stories about Pakistanis and chandeliers and forklift drivers from cavan , and not hae the common decency to explain herself, to ask for forgiveness, to fall down on her knees before them in contrition.

It isn’t until a young black man called Alexander Elmwood arrives in a neighbouring village in search of his missing wife, that Moll’s silence is broken. She confesses she’d abandoned him and their son Joshua in London a week earlier but gives no clear explanation for her actions.

For the remainder of the novel we follow Moll and Alexander as they settle into a new life in Ireland. Secrets are revealed but it isn’t until the very end of the book that we learn fully what lay behind Moll’s sudden departure from Knockgowny all those years ago.

There’s a note of sadness throughout Strange Flowers. Ryan shows the strength and comfort of friendship — most notably between Alexander and his father in law — yet also shows people who struggle to make known their true feelings.

Capacity to Love

Ryan explores the many forms of love; from the empty, despairing existence that Paddy and Kit lead in Moll’s absence, to the infatuation that Joshua experiences in his first relationship, one that him “locked in a dizzy orbit of desire”. And finally there is the love that ultimately provides a form of redemption for Moll.

As in the previous novels I’ve read, Donal Ryan shows compassion but not sentimentality towards his characters. I especially enjoyed his portrayal of Moll’s father, , Paddy, a man whose deep capacity for love overcomes his doubts and uncertainties. He comes to question whether his life has any meaning once Moll has gone. It mattered not a jot if he lived or died when thousands of people could do his job as a postman or walk. the land and tend stock. Being a father had been the one role that had given him purpose but now that’s been taken from him.

His faith too is put to the test. He’d always thought it was enough for a man to be a good Christian, say his prayers, work hard, care for his family, go to mass ” and “the odd hurling match” . But now this man “inclined to peacefulness and contentment” is challenged by the chaos of a runaway daughter and her unorthodox family.

As he travels to meet Alexander for the first time, Paddy is intent on sending the man back where he belongs and demanding explanations from his errant daughter. But it takes only a few seconds to see there is nothing to fear from his son in law. And seconds also. to fall in love with his grandson.

There’s a tenderness too in Ryan’s evocation of his native Ireland. Strange Flowers is set in a timeless world that seems largely untroubled by outside forces (the civil war known as The Troubles barely gets a mention) .

On a rise in the centre of the newly visible field they can see a ring fort, its protective earthen mound blunted and diminished with the ages but still clearly visible, and its circle of sentinel trees, and they marvel at the realisation that they have the best part of a hundred years between them lived in this part of the world and never a thing known to them about this ancient dwelling place, this palace of fairies.

It’s here that Alexander finds a place to call home, joining the local hurling team and creating a landscaping business to support his family. Unfortunately this narrative strand really didn’t work for me.

A Missed Opportunity

Ryan’s plot raises questions about racism and a community’s ability to accept people who are different. Alexander encounters curious stares, muttered comments and jokes whenever he walks through the village. “He expected some times that people would begin to throw coins at him,” he muses , “as though he were a street performer, or a beggar, some kind of exotic mendicant.”

But Ryan treats the racism theme topic very sketchily — too sketchily I felt since all we get are a few references and then suddenly Alexander is embraced by the community and out training with the hurling team. The speed with which this takes place feels all wrong and I would have appreciated a deeper exploration of the issue.

This omission did spoil what was otherwise a beautifully written tale. But even though it’s the weakest of those I’ve read so far, it’s not going to deter me from reading any (and all) of his other books.

Strange Flowers by Donal Ryan: Footnotes

Strange Flowers ,published in 2020 by Doubleday, was voted Novel of the Year at the 2020 Irish Book Awards. It’s the sixth book published by Donal Ryan, an Irish author who attracted attention when his first novel — The Spinning Heart which had been rejected 47 different times by publishers — was longlisted for the Booker Prize . His seventh novel , The Queen of Dirt Island , was published in 2022.


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

9 thoughts on “Strange Flowers by Donal Ryan — family life fractured

    • I haven’t read that one yet. I’ve heard good things about it though

  • This was the first Donal Ryan I had read, and despite the usual reservations about the treatment (or not) of racism, which was barely credible, I was persuaded that here was an author I wanted to read more of: I find his writing beautiful.

    • I’m so glad to have read him. I don’t yet have his latest book though – must remedy that soon

  • I read this last year and thought it was fairly average. I also had issues with the way in which racism was handled ( or not handled) in the story and found it a bit hard to believe in places. I also thought the “Oirishness” was a tad overdone.

    • Interesting, I didn’t find it too heavy on the “Oirishness”. The easy acceptance of Alexander into the community was the part that just didn’t feel believable to me

  • This is a most enticing review:)
    And my library has it!


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