From a Low and Quiet Sea by Donal Ryan: Love, loss and connection

Cover image I’ve a somewhat chequered history with Donal Ryan’s writing. While I enjoyed The Spinning Heart and The Thing About December I couldn’t work up the ecstatic enthusiasm so many other readers were voicing. Then I read All We Shall Know which made it on to my 2016 books of the year list. It’s early days, but I’m pretty sure From a Low and Quiet Sea will do the same this year. Ryan’s carefully crafted, moving novella tells the stories of three very different men, bringing them neatly together at its end.

Farouk watches his wife through their kitchen window, resenting her apparent flirtation with a people trafficker. Martha had not wanted to leave Syria but as the casualties pile up in Farouk’s hospital she’s been persuaded, telling their young daughter they’re off on an adventure. Lampy helps out at the local care home, driving the minibus, changing the sheets and listening to the residents while trying not to think of the girl who’s left him. He’s already let fly at his sharp-tongued, pleased-with-himself grandfather at breakfast, calmed by his mother, the only parent he’s ever known. John is making his confession, the first honest one he’s made since childhood. He’s a big wheel in the town, a fixer, deeply scarred by the loss of his golden brother who died when John was thirteen. There’s much to confess, from the systematic corruption of good men to the murder of his lover’s boyfriend. These three come together in a surprising way in the book’s fourth and final section.

It’s a tricky manoeuvre to tell your characters’ stories in three discrete parts then merge them as subtly as Ryan does in this novella which explores love, loss and connection. He’s a writer who excels at characterisation. Each of his main protagonists has a very different voice: the sober melancholy of Farouk; the quick-to-anger stream of consciousness of Lampy and John’s shocking yet deadpan confession. Even the bit-part players are acutely observed. Ryan’s characteristic sharp ear for speech is often accompanied by a pleasing humour: the ceaseless litany of the old men’s complaint on the bus and their shouting of advice at Lampy when it breaks down is a fine example. His prose has a lilting rhythmic beauty, particularly in Farouk’s story, offset by the colourful vernacular of Pop’s self-regarding anecdotes. I could fill this post with quotes but here are just a few of my favourites:

He flipped onto his back and looked at the long ragged tear of the galaxy, like a wound in the sky, weeping

Talking to herself in a way that would seem strange to anyone not used to hearing her; laughing here and there at some recollection, some good story she’d been told and had kept to herself, for times she was without company

His grandfather was wicked; when he was in form his tongue could slice the world in two

Now I understand what all the fuss was about.

14 thoughts on “From a Low and Quiet Sea by Donal Ryan: Love, loss and connection”

  1. I just finished this book this morning – superb. The way the stories were brought together was so clever – didn’t feel at all contrived or forced.

  2. I wasn’t wowed by The Spinning Heart though totally enamoured with All We Shall Know (though it has the less memorable title annoyingly), so I’m eager to read this one too. I’m reminded a little of Susan Hill in that adept characterisation and depth in the novella form, as she does with her more reflective novellas, In the Springtime of the Year and A Kind Man. Donal’s chararacters culturally are very different, but I love his exploration of them and the situations he creates that pull us along and slowly grip the reader.

    1. I’m glad I’m not the only one who thought it took Ryan a little while to get into his stride! I think you’d like this one, Claire. Very different from All We Shall Know but just as good. I’ve not read much Susan Hill. Perhaps I should seek out one of her novellas.

      1. I think you’d enjoy her, not the ghost story she’s so well known for but her quieter novels are really excellent and from a writing perspective much to be in awe over, as to how she manages it.

  3. Another Donal Ryan book already – I haven’t read the last one yet! This one sounds just as good, so I’ll just read whichever one comes my way first. I love books with separate characters that merge at the end.

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