From war-torn Syria to small-town Ireland

From war-torn Syria to small-town Ireland
Fiction Review: From a Low and Quiet Sea, Donal Ryan, Doubleday Ireland, €14.99
James Lawless
March 26 2018 2:30 AM

Former civil servant Donal Ryan now lectures in creative writing in the University of Limerick. He received 47 rejections before his novel The Spinning Heart was published and won The Guardian First Book Award in 2013. His work, which is sui generis, gives hope to struggling writers who don’t fit neatly into the glove of narrow genres.

This, his fifth work, is a story of three disparate people: a refugee doctor Farouk, his heart torn apart by his warring country and his missing wife and daughter, a local boy Lampy Shanley, underachieving and unlucky in love, and John, a former lobbyist and manipulator of people seeking redemption in his final years. Their stories unite at the end resonating with profound issues, such as diaspora and the nature of family.

Ryan shows he is a sharp observer of contemporary life as in the description of a nosy Limerick barwoman, where the scheming John, caught off guard, ‘felt the intensity of her wondering about me wafting from her like a pungent breeze; it almost had a smell, a taste, that craving for knowledge about the intimate things in others…’ Ryan has the gift of being able to create characters by adding brick upon brick of apparent ordinariness until you say, yes I know that person in all his or her proclivities. This is typified in the case of old Mrs Coyne who looms large before our eyes out of an hilarious stream of consciousness centring on her handsome physio and his ‘wife eye’.

Occasionally, however, there appears to be a slight blurring of characters – the insecure John for example dithering in the confessional or imagining a different world by closing his eyes could believably be Lampy. And sometimes Ryan’s sentences flow into page long paragraphs with lots of conjunctions (reminiscent of the style of Javier Marias). But despite the long sentences, the chapters in contrast are short, compelling the reader to stay with the author’s emotional rollercoaster ride.

There is poetic writing starting with the beautiful opening about trees – their patient communication with each other and their mutual caring, acting as a moral exemplum for humanity. And the sea with its ebbing and flowing acts as a symphonic refrain throughout the novel: the sea which carried Farouk’s wife Martha and his daughter on a different tide, and which, with its syncopated beats, provided comfort to Lampy and his grandfather.

Ryan writes well of youthful infatuation as he describes the physical effect the dreamy Lampy’s true love Chloe had on him: the lump in his throat, the trouble breathing, the heart beating hard, and closing his eyes and opening them again and seeing the world in colour. Lampy works in a modest job as a bus driver and some of the best parts of the book are the vignettes Ryan paints of the old folk that Lampy transports: Mr Collins to hydrotherapy, Mrs Coyne to physio, Mr and Mrs Chambers to their daughter’s house where they had dinner every Friday and the poignant crying of Mrs Chambers as she got back into the bus pleading: ‘Why can’t we stay?’

And Lampy wondered would he do this forever, drive old people around while they waited to die. But in his quest ‘to find the measure of a man’ Lampy learns wisdom from some of the old people such as the knitting woman who reassures him that ‘All you have to do is be kind and you’ll have lived a good life’. Such empathy shines through the work of Donal Ryan.
Published in the Sunday Independent, 25/03/2018


Author: James Lawless

Irish novelist, poet and short story writer.

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