Donal Ryan likes to write, in a luminous way, of souls and eyes. From its title onwards, From A Low and Quiet Sea is gently lyrical, imbued with a soft, sometimes passive yearning. There’s something palliative about Ryan’s authorial presence: a doctor’s bedside manner, or the air of a kindly priest whose sympathetic tone does not quite mask his rigid ethical certainties. Whether eyes have light (one should ‘do your best to hear beyond the spoken, to see the quality of the light in another’s eyes’) or are lightless (the eyes of a people trafficker are ‘fathomless, and lightless, and dead’) is a matter of moral importance to Ryan.
From a Low and Quiet Sea is Ryan’s fifth book – and fourth novel – in just six years, years which have seen the now 41-year-old Irishman gather acclaim, momentum and a host of literary awards and shortlistings, particularly for his debut, The Spinning Heart, which was named ‘Irish book of the decade’ at the 2016 Dublin Book Festival. His emergence has been contemporaneous with a revivified experimentalist Irish literature; writers such as Kevin Barry, Mike McCormack and Eimear McBride have produced caustically fractured or perplexingly liquid novels, in a fierce backlash against the historical novels, ‘chick-lit’ and misery memoirs which dominated Irish writing in the Celtic Tiger years. McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, in particular, used the anvil of Joyce and Beckett to forge something razor-edged and thrillingly new.
Ryan, however, never quite fits into this school, despite apparent similarities. His novels, too, refuse conventions of realist prose: there are no quotation marks to separate thought from speech or description. But within his lengthy paragraphs, the reader is not forced to interpret or reassemble; instead they are coolly guided along by a sometimes enchanting, sometimes sickly tide of ostentatiously sympathetic language.
In a recent interview with the Guardian’s Justine Jordan, Ryan made a startling admission about his literary motivations: ‘I thought how can I make some extra money, and I thought the one thing I’m good at is writing.’ Even his choice of post-Tiger Ireland as his subject was apparently simple commercial good sense: ‘cynically I thought, what’s the gap in the market now? People had already started to write in that area – Claire Kilroy, Roddy Doyle. I was just lucky,’ he told Jordan. In From a Low and Quiet Sea, it seems that another literary success has inspired Ryan to expand his territory: three-quarters of this novel are again set in contemporary, smalltown south-west Ireland, but the opening quarter portrays the escape from the war-torn Middle East of a doctor named Farouk, in a manner unmistakeably similar to Mohsin Hamid’s recent bestseller Exit West.
Farouk’s section is where, perhaps inspired by Hamid’s similarly unrelenting sentimentality, Ryan’s prose grows most cloying. Is this how we want to read about refugees and sufferers? Not perfect, no, but with their corners sanded smooth, their anguish held at a circumspect distance from the reader’s eye. The later sections show us Lampy, a recently dumped and thoroughly fed up young Irishman, and John, a dead or dying older man whose long-form ‘confession’ is again strikingly reminiscent, this time of McCormack’s ‘stream of post-consciousness’ Solar Bones. The final section operates from a variety of locals’ perspectives. These latter sections are far livelier than the first, with John in particular capable of gleaming charisma: ‘I always had a fiendish knack for making people hate each other’, he tells us, full of devilment. Operating from an Irish point of view, Ryan is sure-footed with colloquialism – Lampy is to be found ‘pucking a sliotar across the green’, a phrase which Irish readers will instantly recognise and others will not mind having to look up. Farouk, however, has no such specificity to his internal dialect, and references such as ‘a tiny stone church on a hillside above his grandmother’s village’ seem desperately vague. The Irish characters are capable of grubbiness – Lampy’s grandfather ‘hawks’ up phlegm; it is hard to imagine Farouk, the saintly Arab, displaying such earthliness.
In this novel, with its tripartite-then-coda structure, its Syria-set opening and expansion into patterns of global migration, and in the moribund device of John’s final confession, Ryan has elevated his conceptual framework to something grander than the local knots of The Spinning Heart or All We Shall Know. Unfortunately, this act of elevation has torn out the roots.
Aran Ward Sell is a writer and a University of Edinburgh English Literature PhD researcher and tutor. He has reviewed for the James Tait Black Prize, and written for academic journals and Inciting Sparks.