There are many hypotheses about why such a small country as Ireland has produced so many great writers: the loss of the Irish language, the national feeling of separateness, the gift for mimicry, the enormous capacity for suffering. For me the “why” doesn’t really matter, interesting as it is to speculate. I’m always happy to add another brilliant contemporary Irish writer to my list that includes Column McCann, Ann Enright, Colm Tóibín, Mary Lavin, Brian Friel, and Edna O’Brien, to name just those top of mind at the moment.
My new guy is Donal Ryan, whose latest, All We Shall Know, just floored me. Ryan is writing in the voice of 33-year-old Melody Shee, his unsympathetic protagonist who in the first paragraph announces she’s pregnant by a 17-year-old Traveller (think Irish gypsy). The ugly wreck of her marriage to her high school sweetheart is described with painful, searing dialogue but somehow we feel compassion for this flawed woman. How, I want to know, did Ryan write a woman’s inner life so well?
He takes us inside the Traveller’s world with its high drama and epic feuds (it’s not hyperbole to call it Shakespearean) without sensationalizing it. He tells the story of Melody’s treachery that ends in tragedy for her best friend. And he delivers a gorgeous, non-sentimental portrait of Melody’s long-suffering, saint-like father, a man who struggles with a foreign French press coffee maker to please his daughter. The scene where his wife ridicules him for failing to fly a kite successfully almost had me in tears:
And I stood equidistant between them and I watched my father’s reddening face as he rewound the string and untangled the streamers from the butterfly’s wings and hoisted its flimsy body to the wind once more and watched as it flew left and right and he tried to tauten the string and to match the kite’s switching trajectories to keep it aloft and it crashed again into the sand and my mother said, Oh forget it, forget it … and she laughed softly and said Your poor father … and I looked back at Daddy, who was still at the water’s edge, facing the setting sun, and I saw him snap the butterfly’s spine across his knee and toss its broken body to the waves.
All We Shall Know clocks in at under 200 pages. There’s a beautiful economy and discipline to Donal Ryan’s book. And he even offers us some redemption at the end. Truly great stuff.
Two other books I’ve liked lately: Paolo Giordano’s Like Family and Anna North’s The Life and Death of Sophie Stark. Giordano’s book is the tender portrait of a housekeeper/nanny/confidante who becomes the glue that holds a family together. It’s a quiet novel with a tinge of melancholy (but not in a depressing way) about family and devotion and loneliness. North’s novel is the story of an enigmatic artist who wreaks havoc on the lives of all those around her. Told from the perspective of those whose lives the central character alters, the novel examines the intersection of art and morality. It’s a compelling read.