Donal Ryan's writing has an elegance and depth of feeling which is so rare. I was incredibly moved reading his novel “The Thing About December” and his short story collection “A Slanting of the Sun.” But his new novel “All We Shall Know” actually had me crying in some scenes – and that happens very rarely when I'm reading. It's also not often I'll turn the last page of a novel and say 'Wow!' Not only does Ryan completely draw the reader into the narrator Melody's dilemma (a thirty-three year old married woman who is pregnant from her younger student) and create a suspenseful story of broken families and conflicts within the Traveller community in Ireland, but his writing is also stunningly beautiful. The chapter headings in this novel chart the weeks of Melody's pregnancy. As the baby grows, the crisis of her situation becomes more alarming. This is a powerful novel about relationships, guilt and betrayal.

Melody is undeniably a difficult individual. She even eagerly strives to convince people of her hardness: “I’m bad, for sure. There’s no kindness in me.” She's become pregnant by a teenage Traveller named Martin who is the son of a very influential member of his community. Her husband Pat is unsentimentally informed of this fact and leaves her. Now she's scorned by her neighbours and maintains a bleak uncharitable outlook: “What heart matters? I felt like saying to her, but didn’t. No heart matters to this mechanical unrolling of happenings, this blinding spearing time. We’re all tied to the tracks.” She becomes bogged down in mulling over the past, her mother's early death, her tumultuous marriage and guilt over her childhood friend Breedie who she betrayed. However, she strikes up an unlikely friendship with another young Traveller named Mary Crothery who she also tutors. Through Mary, she becomes engaged with something more than the obsessive memories which orbit her.

The marriage between Melody and Pat broke down over a long period of time since they first became a couple when they were teenagers. Ryan is so skilful at conveying the alternating hope and despair of their situation as they struggle to have a child. Their bond becomes so powerful that Melody feels “We merged over time into one person, I think, and it's easy to be cruel to oneself.” It's always struck me as baffling that couples can act so viciously to one another. But this one short line captures so powerfully the intense closeness formed in a relationship and why you can feel compelled to hurt the person you love the most – because that person is like a part of you.

An Irish Traveller watches neighbouring children play from her trailer window. (Photo: Mackenzie Reiss)

An Irish Traveller watches neighbouring children play from her trailer window. (Photo: Mackenzie Reiss)

Readers might become frustrated by Melody's unrelenting coldhearted actions, but a key to understanding her steely nature is her broken friendship with teenage friend Breedie. She was a girl with some dark, difficult secrets who Melody turned her back on for the sake of social acceptance. When reading this book it was these scenes which really hit me at the core and made my eyes water. This teenage cruelty felt entirely realistic to me. Melody's life since then might be a protracted act of self sabotage as this is the relationship she earned only through betraying her closest friend. Her involvement with the dangerous politics of Martin and Mary's community could be her penance.

I want to stress the novel isn't all bleakness and gloom. There are touches of an edgy humour scattered throughout. In one scene Melody senses she's being overlooked by a nosy neighbour and muses “Someone was looking back from a house directly across and down a bit, towards the bend. Mrs Brannigan. Or Flanagan. Or some-fucking-thingagan.” There is a lot of poking fun at the ridiculously gossip-driven community and how no one can mind their own business. Unsurprisingly, a lot of this talk ends up perpetuating and worsening problems.

Donal Ryan has a talent for spinning dramatic tales that shine with heart and wisdom and leave you feeling as if you've fully experienced his characters' lives. “All We Shall Know” is a book of supreme craftsmanship and deep emotion.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesDonal Ryan
5 CommentsPost a comment

Last year I read Donal Ryan’s novel “The Thing About December.” I was drawn in by the powerfully distinctive voice he’d created for the central character who is a sensitive loner. Some authors like Richard Ford or Anita Brookner are able to establish an engaging narrative voice which they repeat throughout multiple books and, while it may be consistently impressive, it doesn’t show much variation. I wondered if that would be the case with Ryan so I was somewhat hesitant to start this book of short stories. I was delighted to discover a rich array of characters throughout the many stories in this collection whose voices are all individually distinct. These characters range in age, class, sex and race to create a dynamic and layered portrayal of Irish life. It’s impressive that each story finds its own rhythm to relate a particular character’s point of view. We see the world through each character’s eyes as they see it. Brought together, the engaging voices in “A Slanting of the Sun” give a rich understanding of the world, tell a series of dramatically entertaining stories and honour the diversity of individual experience.

Since almost all of these stories are set in Ireland one of the most fascinating things about this collection is the sense of ebb and flow it portrays amongst the national population. There are characters with strong roots in Ireland who face the tough decision of whether to leave for London or Australia to seek out employment and a new life. Conversely, the story ‘Grace’ gives voice to a woman who left the Democratic Republic of the Congo under terrifying circumstances to find unofficial factory work and face a different kind of fear when riding the bus in Ireland. The story ‘Trouble’ portrays how certain groups of the population like Irish travellers face longstanding oppression and social stigma. Other stories like ‘Hanora Ryan, 1998’ show characters who live in the country as if time has stood still. In this story a woman recalls a man she admired and lost in WWI as if it were yesterday even though more than eighty years have passed. 

Many of the impassioned voices which narrate these stories seem to start in mid-flow so it’s only till you get through half their tale that you are able to sufficiently orientate yourself to the situation. I particularly enjoyed it when these stories made my sympathy unexpectedly switch away from the character narrating it once I grasped their full story. In ‘The Squad’ the narrator and his friends take the law into their own hands and find they must live with the consequences forever more. This movingly shows the useless life-destroying circular nature of violence: “All of naught, to naught, for naught, year upon year of moments, of time slowly marked, of silence filled with empty words.” The scale of injustices and crimes committed by protagonists vary from small instances of betrayal and theft like in ‘Losers Weepers’ to outrageous institutional abuse in ‘Nephthys and The Lark’ to horrific murder in ‘Retirement Do.’ These stories draw the reader in to really see the internal struggles of these difficult individuals giving you a more complicated understanding of situations which you might see more simplistically from a distanced outsiders’ perspective.

Listen to Donal Ryan read from the mysterious, chilling story 'From a Starless Night'

While I appreciated all of the stories in this collection, there are some which stand out as personal favourites. These stories in particular are impressive for the way they give a sense of the enormity of the universe and the place that particular life experiences have within it. The story ‘Sky’ is narrated by an aging, lonely man named William who is irreligious but doesn’t see the harm in sending his prayers up to the sky. He gets a computer in the hope of finding the nephew he lost touch with, but stuffs it in a closet and looks to the stars instead. ‘Ragnarok’ features a fairly average office worker who finds himself suddenly overwhelmed by emotion. In ‘Physiotherapy’ a woman recalls her life, the choices she made and creates a uniquely complex view of existence. This story also shows a breathtaking vision of how memory can make time into a fluid thing so all experience occurs simultaneously: “I’m seventy-seven and I’m twenty, my child is dead and he hasn’t yet been born.” The title story ‘A Slanting of the Sun’ shows a tremendously surprising instance of forgiveness and sense of kinship for someone who committed a horrendous crime. It’s also the story which closes this book and allows it to end with a hard-won, uplifting sensation.

I was struck many times throughout this book of short stories by the astounding beauty of certain sentences. It’s so accomplished how Donal Ryan can write from the points of view of characters with very different experiences and ways of speaking, but always draws upon language and phrasing which accurately pinpoints a subtly of feeling and pays tribute to the full complexity of human emotion. He can perfectly encapsulate a common feeling like the importance phones play in young people’s lives: “Her daughter’s world seemed compressed sometimes into the screen of that telephone; all of her tides turned at the pull of its gravity, her whole existence seemed wedded to it.” Or he can present a contradiction so that the character’s reasoning reflects his particular emotional state: “Cursed we are with health, my family, stout unfailing hearts, years to go till death for me.” All of it sings with a life-force which is enthralling and demands to be listened to.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesDonal Ryan
the-thing-about-december.jpg

Some books grab you with a voice so strong and distinct you can’t help listening. The narrator in “The Thing About December” follows a young man named Johnsey in a rural Irish town over the course of a year. He lives under the shadow of men whom he considers to be great and feels himself to be a total loser. He’s often steeped in fantasies where he becomes a hero – often with semi-clad women clamouring after him, but in reality his actions are awkward and nervous leading him to be bullied and ignored and misunderstood. Amidst the calamitous year that’s covered he becomes caught in the middle of a hyped-up property boom that causes attention to cluster around him with everyone seeking their own slice of the pie. Johnsey also makes a couple of close friends in the two brilliantly realized characters “Mumbly Dave” and the nurse with the “beautiful voice” Siobhan. However, most of the time Johnsey spends his time (as he puts it) “sitting on his hole” while a maelstrom of dramatic events take place around him.

There are several things which cause Johnsey’s story to come so alive. Most obviously, the Irish vernacular of both the narrator and dialogue of the characters makes them powerfully realistic. Often these idiosyncratic descriptions come with more heavily-laden meanings. Seemingly offhand comments become wise and sombre observations about human nature and the insignificance of individual lives in the grand scheme of things. Johnsey’s stance as a solitary quiet figure brings forth a lot of sharp observations about the difference between the internal and external world. “A man is only safe inside in himself. There’s nothing people won’t do or say when they think right is on their side. Who decides what’s right?” Remaining closed to the outside world he's able to maintain his own sense of integrity (no matter how self-deprecating) and understanding of what is right. He realizes that people are driven by their own self belief which will often clash with his own understanding of the world.

Johnsey tries to remain on his own. However, he knows that being caught in his own thoughts can have a deteriorating effect on the mind: “Too much thinking could balls you up rightly. Your mind could start acting like a video player, showing you your own thickness.” He desperately wants to engage in some social interaction but it’s a tremendous struggle. There's a heartbreaking recollection from his teenage years when he attempts to go to a local dance which ends disastrously. The result is an understanding that “For a man to be lonely, Johnsey knew, he did not need to be alone.” Sometimes the company of others can only make you understand how different and excluded you are and so increase your sense of isolation even more.

Crossing the boundary between inertia and action is near impossible for Johnsey, but doing so is the only way of achieving real self-knowledge. “Sometimes you didn’t know how you would feel about doing a thing until you went and did it. And then it’s too late; you can never undo it.” There can be both positive and negative consequences of breaking through your own hesitancy and taking action. On the rare occasions he does so he discovers how tricky it is dealing with people in reality rather than inside his head. “People are better inside in your head. When you’re longing for them, they’re perfect.” His interactions reveal both his own inadequacy and the shortcomings of those around him. However, as the progress of time shows it’s impossible for him to remain an island. His personal space is invaded and he must learn how to react and engage.

Amongst other things, this is a book about mourning. Not only does Johnsey lose people who are important to him, but he loses his idealized versions of the world. He discovers that “sadness plus sadness equals more sadness.” No revelations about life or special faith in humanity rise out of the ashes of what is lost. It’s a cold hard fact. For some time he lives off from the kindness shown to him after experiencing tremendous loss. But he learns that “Sympathy doesn’t last forever. Like a pebble thrown in a river, it’s a splash and a ripple and gone.” He must accept his loss and move on with his life.

Since this novel is plotted out over the course of a year and follows each month it is moreover about time. Not only does it record the events which happen in Johnsey's life each month, but the way his mind loops back to thoughts of his parents and the deep loss he feels for time lost. In a sense he wants things to remain constant and unchanging so he recalls what traditionally happens on the farm each month. But nothing remains the same: “that’s the way time is – it’s not a constant either.” Dramatic events can cause life to speed up at a pace he finds hard to keep up with. As the world progresses and changes around him so must he. For someone so inhibited this is painfully difficult for Johnsey to accept.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesDonal Ryan