Wednesday 21 February 2018

Ryan crafts an exquisite account of womanhood

All We Shall Know
Donal Ryan
Doubleday Ireland, tpbk, 190 pages, €16.99

Lightness of touch: Donal Ryan
Lightness of touch: Donal Ryan
All We Shall Know by Donal Ryan

Ruth Gilligan

Donal Ryan's third novel, All We Shall Know, begins with a series of cold, hard facts: "Martin Toppy is the son of a famous Traveller and the father of my unborn child. He's 17. I'm 33. I was his teacher. I'd have killed myself by now if I was brave enough."

This is indeed all we need to know about the heartbreaking story that lies ahead, as we follow Melody Shee over the second half of her highly-controversial, life-altering pregnancy.

As Melody's unborn child grows, so too does our knowledge of Melody's life up until now - a life that, already, has been laced with tragedy. From her failed marriage to that of her parents before her, to the untimely deaths of her mother and her childhood best friend, Melody believes her past has caused "some irreparable fault in me. There's something broken inside my head that stops me being normal".

However, Melody now has the chance to mend this fault - to start a new life - both through this baby and through her unlikely friendship with Mary Crothery, an 18-year-old Traveller girl. As Melody herself puts it: "So here now am I, this new incarnation of me, this version I have never expected, this thing." And with Ryan's exceptional touch, 'this thing' is a delight to behold.

Despite the presence of female characters in his other works, this is the first time Ryan has written an entire novel from a woman's perspective. It is clear he has taken great care to try and capture Melody's pregnancy - both the physical and mental aspects. Likewise, the nuances of female friendships and father-daughter dynamics are astutely observed. More generally, having a female protagonist also affords Ryan the opportunity to scrutinise the role of women in Irish society, as we witness the sheer and utter disgust aimed at Melody in her time of need.

Even the hostility Melody experiences, however, is not as strong as that aimed at the Travelling community. Dismissed here as 'Tinkers', 'Knackers' and far, far worse, Travellers have historically been treated as the outcasts of Irish society. Indeed, many argue that, in the wake of Independence, Travellers served as the ultimate 'other' against which the Irish could define their own, newly-formed identity. The insularity of the community, meanwhile, has done little to dispel certain negative stereotypes and misunderstandings as, even now, they conjure largely negative sentiment.

Through Melody, and her friendship with Mary, however, we are invited to see beyond these stereotypes and instead are afforded an insight into this "world within a world". We learn about the customs and traditions which make up the fabric of their complex, tight-knit community. And while many view these traditions as flawed or barbaric, Ryan manages to turn the looking-glass back on the settled people, and reveal how they too are no strangers to barbarity; how they too have their own problematic ways of dealing with certain situations.

For example, on account of her situation, Melody has a brick thrown through her window with a series of vindictive slurs painted across it. Elsewhere, she is visited by a series of men who try alternately to hit her, rape her, persuade her to abort her baby and offer her money to leave town and never come back. Meanwhile, the women of the neighbourhood are shown to be nothing more than spiteful, hypocritical gossipers who may attend daily Mass, but will just as soon cast judgment on this kind young woman.

Their codes, we come to see, have deep flaws of their own.

Ryan first shot to fame in 2013 when his debut novel, The Spinning Heart, was famously rescued from the slush pile, only to be longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and awarded the Guardian First Book Award. Since then, he has published another novel and a collection of short stories, in each case setting the minutiae of everyday lives against wider political backdrops such as the Celtic Tiger or the resultant economic crash.

All We Shall Know is undoubtedly Ryan's strongest work to date. His lightness of touch has been honed to such a degree that a rich, layered portrait of Melody and her world is conjured through the simplest of vignettes. As Melody herself reflects: "These are all just bits and fragments, shards; no one can tell the story of a life or a friendship or a death or a marriage day for day."

So a 'fragment' of a family flying a kite reveals chasms of unspoken disappointment and pain; a simple 'bit' of playground banter belies a well of betrayal and loss. Where Ryan is bolder this time around is that these vignettes are also shot through with moments of shocking brutality and violence. The effect is quite startling, and Ryan's ability to shift between the muted and the grotesque is unparalleled.

The novel's only weakness is its occasional tendency towards metafiction. Melody explains how she is actually typing up her life on her laptop as it occurs, forming a story to be told to her baby. This is an unnecessary device, especially when Melody thinks of other writers such as Yeats - specifically his poem 'An Irish Airman Foresees his Death' - a rare allusion that seems at worst, forced, at best, simply out of place.

The ending too feels a little rushed, with a number of major events we have been building towards simply skipped over or alluded to in passing. However, overall Ryan has crafted an exquisite account of womanhood, friendship, prejudice and tradition that is both intimate in scale and awesome in achievement.

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