All We Shall Know by Donal Ryan: Redemption in spades

Cover imageI ended my review of Donal Ryan’s last novel, The Thing About December, by quoting Litlove’s idea that the higher your expectations for a book, the greater your disappointment when they’re not met. Both Ryan’s novels had been praised to the skies and although there was much to admire in his second, those raised expectations had not been met. Perhaps it’s because I’d learnt my lesson that this time around they were exceeded or perhaps it’s because Ryan has ventured into different territory. Written in gorgeously lyrical prose, All We Shall Know tells the story of Melody Shee’s pregnancy and the unexpected friendship she finds with a young Traveller woman.

After several miscarriages Melody is twelve weeks into her pregnancy. Hardly in a position to criticise given his visits to prostitutes and his predilection for porn, Pat storms out at the news that his wife is carrying the child of a man she supposedly met online. In truth, the father is a seventeen-year-old Traveller she had been teaching to read. As Melody’s pregnancy progresses she looks back over her life: the loss of her mother, her betrayal of her closest friend and the soured passion of her marriage. She visits the Travellers’ site, hoping to catch a glimpse of Martin but finding herself drawn instead to a young woman sitting on the steps of her caravan. Mary is caught up in a feud between clans. Unable to conceive, she’s left her husband so that he can find a fertile partner, bringing dishonour upon her own family. Retribution must be exacted and Melody finds herself caught up in Mary’s story in ways she could hardly imagine. By the end of this slim, intensely moving novella, redemption on a Shakespearean scale has been served.

Ryan structures his story in brief chapters, each one covering a week of Melody’s pregnancy in which she lets slip details of her life. She’s an involving narrator, unflinchingly honest in her confession of guilt at her treatment of others, from her father whose eager concern has been rebuffed for years to the betrayal of her dearest friend in exchange for the approbation of the ‘cool girls’ and access to Pat. ‘I’m bad, for sure. There’s no kindness in me’, she says. Ryan’s writing is both clear and clean yet lyrical – ‘we insisted on marrying each other, and lowering ourselves onto a bed of terrible, scalding, comfortably familiar pain’ – and his ear for dialect is superb. He summons up beautifully the claustrophobia of living in a small town where everyone knows your business and no one is afraid of loudly judging you for it. All these are characteristics familiar from Ryan’s previous novels but what stood out in this one was his story telling: a seamless interweaving of both Mary’s and Melody’s stories leading to a dramatic conclusion. For me, it’s Ryan’s best novel yet.

8 thoughts on “All We Shall Know by Donal Ryan: Redemption in spades”

  1. Everything about this sounds delicious. I haven’t read any of his books, but I own A Slanting of the Sun, his short story collection, which I won from Cathy at 746 Books.
    Love this: “we insisted on marrying each other, and lowering ourselves onto a bed of terrible, scalding, comfortably familiar pain”.

    1. Isn’t that a fabulous description of an ill-advised marriage? I haven’t read any of his short stories but I’m sure they’ll be great. He’s a master of economy.

    1. It’s great isn’t it. The writing’s so sharp yet beautiful – he has such a well-tuned ear for dialect

  2. This sounds like a beautiful read, gorgeously written. Not sure why I haven’t encountered Ryan before, but I’ll be looking him up. Thanks! Great review, as always.

    1. Thanks, Belinda. He’s well worth seeking out. I enjoyed the first two but for me this is his best – Melody has such a clear voice.

  3. Pleased you enjoyed this one more than the last Ryan you read, Susan. It sounds like a beautiful, moving read. I haven’t read Ryan before, so another one for the list. I almost want this one for the cover alone. 🙂

    1. There was so much brouhaha surrounding his first two that I think my expectations were raised too high. That’s the way it tends to work for me! This one hit the spot, though – I hope it does for you too.

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