Tuesday 18 December 2018

A journey to the brink of an emotional abyss

Fiction: From a Low and Quiet Sea, Donal Ryan, Doubleday,hardback, 192 pages, €16.00

No happy ever after: Donal Ryan avoids melodrama and platitudes in From a Low and Quiet Sea. Photo: David Conachy
No happy ever after: Donal Ryan avoids melodrama and platitudes in From a Low and Quiet Sea. Photo: David Conachy
From a Low and Quiet Sea by Donal Ryan

Hilary A White

Donal Ryan's bewitching fourth novel takes the reader from Syria to small-town Ireland as it follows the stories of three very different men who are each stalked by their past.

'He's almost like a Joseph Conrad, all his books are the same level of immaculate conception… The age will partly be remembered for him." This was the view of Sebastian Barry towards Tipperary novelist Donal Ryan, the man who began his publishing life with so many rejection letters that when his debut novel The Spinning Heart won the Bord Gáis Energy Book of the Year in 2012, he couldn't process the announcement.

Civil servant Ryan was, in his own words, "shamed" into writing his first completed novel, The Thing About December, by his wife Anne Marie.

Barry may occasionally be prone to hyperbole but he is right. Although he probably squirms at the thought, the prolific writer is now the eminent literary fiction voice of post-recession Ireland, an age when this island has had much to process about the inversions of morality that have been committed all about us.

It takes a good writer to frame right and wrong within a coherent narrative and make it not feel like a finger-wagging sermon. It takes a great one, however, to make the contents heave and sigh before your eyes. And yet Ryan, with little in terms of a typically writerly background - no English literature degrees, no circling of the literary journal circuit, etc - seemed to arrive fully-formed, even if it took an intern rummaging through the Lilliput Press slush pile to flag this fact to the world.

Central to what Ryan does is an ability to bring characters - and, by turns, readers - to the brink of an emotional abyss, get them to look into it, before reeling them back to redemption and safety armed with a hard-won truth. All this takes place within the confines of spare, economic prose that is bewitching (and very often absolutely crushing) for the very things it declines to state outright.

This fourth novel - Ryan's fifth release including his 2015 short-story collection A Slanting of the Sun - feels somehow like a culmination of the places he has taken us to in our six years of knowing him. There is the multi-voice narrative of The Spinning Heart, convergent souls hurtling towards a common point on the horizon. The first thread in From a Low and Quiet Sea is that of Farouk, a Syrian refugee and a voice from the margins that Ryan brings into his more familiar small-town Ireland setting (just as he did with the Travelling community in third novel All We Shall Know).

The first thing that strikes you is how Ryan's customary rain-flecked palette of Hibernian grey-blues is bleached at the outset by desert sun in Farouk's section. A worried father and husband, he notices how war "had come slowly, had accreted around them rather than exploded at their door". A lifeline presents itself that will allow Farouk and his family to escape the "strangers armed with guns" who are now dictating social and religious norms with violent rigidity. The journey will involve a pact with a snake who can taste Farouk's desperation. There follows an unimaginable sea-crossing and its nightmarish aftermath, their constituent parts taken from the sterility of the newsfeed by Ryan and rendered immediate and unforgettable. "The final mighty list and the exceeding of some critical point, some terminal axiom of gravity, the small boat's surrender to the sea."

From there we move to Lampy, another soul at sea but this time on dry land. The young man lives with his mother and grandfather, and as well as being fatherless, he is without any direction in life. The natural wanderlust of his twenty-something years is given added nudges by a formless haunting and frustration. One thing that does provide Lampy with a level of engagement, however, is his role as the driver of a community bus which elderly members of the locality rely on heavily.

Lampy's place within the overall tale could be viewed as that of a bridge between Farouk and the third character, John. It is, ultimately, in the voices of Lampy and John that the weighty bludgeons of this deceptively slim novel are delivered.

Evil takes many shapes in literature, but it is in more mundane forms that monsters appear most frightening. Ryan has always peddled a great line in the type of kitchen-sink demons that could be plucked straight from the screenplays of Michael Haneke or Andrey Zvyagintsev, but I'm not sure he has ever sculpted anything quite like John - a "tattered filthy soul" confessing a litany of crimes before a god that he long ago damned to hell with the purest of bile. Arguably worse again is his sister Connie.

Sculpted is the only word with John because Ryan lays bare the anatomy of this wicked counterpoint to Farouk, the moments the formative scars were administered and dysfunctional behaviours instilled, what the spiteful inner monologue of the character was saying to itself, the justifications, the gratification of destroying others and the poisonous tactics employed in the lead up. You listen to John's transgressions, hidden from sight in the banal comings and goings of everyday suburban life, and you feel the ache of realisation that people like this exist in the world.

Ryan is of course well-disposed to humour and sizzling folk-wit but for the most part, this is wrenching stuff that deals its blows unflinchingly. What you always sense, however, is that there will be some let-up, some third-act deliverance for the harrowed characters.

Redemption will thus come to these three men who are each stalked by a past either thrust upon them or of their own doing. Their lives come together in a confluence that somehow seems to avoid melodrama and platitudes. No triumphalism, no suddenly sunny skies, no happy ever after. Instead, restoration, clarity, harmony.

The exorcisms can happen with the holding of a hand or a symbolic fleck of solace. Ryan's point is that this can often be enough.

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