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.
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.