Tag Archives: All We Shall Know

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

Cover imageI’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.

Paperbacks to Look Out for in April 2017: Part One

Cover imageAnother fine month for paperbacks this April, worthy of a two-part preview. I’ve read each of the five books in this first batch, kicking off with Donal Ryan’s All We Shall Know, one of my favourites from last year. After several miscarriages Melody is twelve weeks into her pregnancy. Her husband has stormed out after learning that the father is the seventeen-year-old Traveller she had been teaching to read. As her pregnancy progresses Melody becomes friends with Mary, caught up in a feud between Traveller clans thanks to her admission of infertility which has brought dishonour upon her family. Structured in brief chapters written in clear, clean yet lyrical prose, Ryan’s novel seamlessly interweaves both Mary’s and Melody’s stories leading to a dramatic conclusion. For me, it’s Ryan’s best novel yet.

Another favourite from 2016, Sara Taylor’s The Lauras is also a wonderful piece of storytelling. Alex is thirteen when she’s hauled out of bed in the middle of the night, packed into the car along with the barest essentials and driven off, not entirely sure what’s happening. So begins a two-year odyssey during which Alex’s education is completed, both school and otherwise, while her mother works to keep them afloat. Each year they travel further along the yellow-highlighted map that Alex finds when her mother is out, settling scores, fulfilling longstanding promises and repaying debts. Stuffed with stories, Taylor’s novel is written in strikingly vivid prose, exploring identity through both the determinedly androgynous Alex and her equally Cover imagedetermined mother. More than lives up to Taylor’s excellent debut, The Shore.

Set in 1920, Suzanne Joinson’s The Photographer’s Wife follows another young girl, this time the eleven-year-old daughter of an architect commissioned to design plans for rebuilding Jerusalem. Far too caught up in himself, his work and his social life, Charles leaves Prue almost entirely to her own devices. She spends her time looking and listening, entangling herself in relationships she can’t understand. It’s a story of duplicity, espionage and thwarted love in which Prue’s experience will have terrible repercussions for her, echoing L. P. Hartley’s Leo Colston in The Go-Between and Ian McEwan’s Briony Tallis in Atonement. Delighted to see that the striking hardback jacket has been kept for the paperback edition.

Repercussions are also a theme which runs through Georgina Harding’s The Gun Room. Set in Asia at the time of the Vietnam War and the beginning of the Japanese economic boom, Harding’s new novel is about a young photographer trying to cope with the shadow thrown by not one but two wars. After witnessing what he thinks was a massacre from the air, Jonathan Ashe takes a photograph of a soldier which will become emblematic of the conflict, appearing on the front of a magazine and changing both their lives. Written in elegant yet vivid prose it’s a novel which leaves its readers with much to think about as well as to admire.

Cover imageI’m ending this first batch of paperbacks with a book that for some reason I managed to forget to include on my Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction list A shame, as it would have doubled my feeble hit rate. I’m sure authors will start petitioning to be omitted from my prize wish lists soon. Thankfully the judges weren’t so absent-minded. Set in 1885, Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent is the tale of a small group of people each of whom comes to their own conclusions about a winged serpent, first seen in 1669 and now thought to be roaming the marshes around Aldwinter. A novel of ideas all wrapped up in a riveting bit of storytelling and gorgeously vivid prose, it focuses on the passionate friendship between the recently widowed Cora, fascinated by the emerging theories about the natural world, and Will Ransome, Aldwinter’s pastor, determined to ignore the titular serpent’s effect on his parishioners. It’s a very fine book indeed

That’s it for the first batch of April paperbacks. Should you want to know more a click on any of the titles will take you to my review and if you’d like to catch up with April’s new titles they’re here and here. Second batch to follow soon, full of books I’ve not yet read.

Books of the Year 2016: Part Four

Cover imageThis final books of the year post leapfrogs from August to October. Not sure what happened in September but I suspect it may have something to do with riding the Central European railways for several weeks. October’s reading made up for it starting with Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth, to which I had been looking forward a little warily after a few disappointments with Patchett’s novels in recent years. It’s the story of a family, one which increasingly extends itself as marriages multiply and children are born. Patchett is an expert in show not tell: as her novel crisscrosses the years, from the opening christening in 1964 when a gatecrasher helps change the family’s history to the present day, stories are told and re-told – sometimes with illuminating differences. With its pleasingly rounded characters, meticulously constructed structure and thoroughly absorbing storytelling all underpinned with a gentle but wry humour, Commonwealth is a wonderful novel whose ending completes a beautifully executed circle.

I had similar reservations about Donal Ryan’s third novel. Both his previous books had been praised to the skies which raised my expectations too high to be met, I suspect. Perhaps it’s because I’d learnt my lesson that this time around they were exceeded. 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. The story is structured in brief chapters, Cover imageeach one covering a week of Melody’s pregnancy in which she lets slip details of her life. Ryan’s writing is clear and clean yet often poetic and his ear for dialect is superb – characteristics familiar from his previous novels – but what stood out in this one was his story telling. For me, it’s his best novel yet.

Expectations were sky-high for Robert Seethaler’s The Tobacconist A Whole Life, which told the tale of one man’s life lived almost exclusively in an Austrian alpine village, was one of my books of last year. Beginning in 1937 in the months before Germany annexed Austria, The Tobacconist is very much darker, following the progress of a young man from his country bumpkin arrival in Vienna where he takes up an apprenticeship. As Franz’s character develops, Seethaler shows us Vienna through eyes which become increasingly appalled by what they see, often using simple slapstick comedy to throw the dreadful events unfolding into stark relief. Plain, clipped writing is studded with vivid images, all beautifully translated by Charlotte Collins who did such a fine job on A Whole Life.

Cover imageThis year is rounded off with a November favourite: Linda Grant’s The Dark Circle which celebrates the introduction of the NHS through the stories of a set of patients suffering from tuberculosis in a rather posh sanatorium, all of them hopeful that the new treatment rumoured to be on its way to Britain will save them. Grant portrays a subtle subversion of the status quo through the Gwendo’s inmates, many of whom come in contact with people of a different class and race for the first time. It’s a richly satisfying piece of storytelling with a bright thread of humour running through it and a cast of vivid, sharply observed characters .

And if I had to choose? I think it would come down to Kim Echlin’s beautiful paean of praise to female friendship Under the Visible Life, Ann Patchett’s immensely satisfying Commonwealth, or Hiromi Kawakami’s quietly charming The Nakano Thrift Shop. Who knows what 2017 will bring – I fervently hope that it will be better for the world than 2016 – but whatever it is at least there will always be books and storytelling to solace ourselves with, if only for a little while.

If you’d like to catch up with the previous three books of the year posts for 2016 they’re here, here, and here. A click on any of the titles above will take you to my review. Next week it’ll be time to look forward to what’s on offer in January.

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.