book review: All We Shall Know by Donal Ryan


Penguin, 2017

This book was stunning.

I’m struggling to give a brief summary of the plot, because although it’s a relatively simple story, everything I write feels reductive of the emotional journey that Donal Ryan takes the reader on, and the larger themes that he explores in his narrative. The bare bones of the novel are this: 33-year-old, married Melody Shee finds herself pregnant by a 17-year-old boy who she was teaching to read. But it’s not really a book about marriage and affairs. At the heart of this story is the bond that Melody forms with a young Traveller girl, Mary, as the focus shifts to their weird and unconventional friendship as Melody seeks atonement for something that happened in her past.

Ryan’s prose is lyrical and gorgeous. It’s the kind of carefully constructed writing that forces you to slow down and really take in each word. It’s a short novel, but one that’s not to be rushed through. I loved the experience of reading this as much as I love the impression it left me with.

This is ultimately a story about guilt, redemption, and betrayal, told with a searing and brutal honesty that made my heart race. This is one of those books that isn’t afraid of confronting the ugliness of human nature – how we’re capable of hurting those we love, how we lie to ourselves to cope with bad decisions we’ve made. I felt Melody’s pain and regret so acutely while I was reading this.

All We Shall Know is an intense, draining, and emotionally exhausting read – and all in under 200 pages. This was my first Ryan novel, but I have The Spinning Heart sitting on my shelf, and I think I need to bump it up on my TBR after how much I loved this.

10 thoughts on “book review: All We Shall Know by Donal Ryan

  1. Spot on review! I’m so glad you enjoyed this, and I get exactly what you mean when you say it was intense and emotionally exhausting; I felt genuinely stressed when reading it, but in the best way possible. The way Ryan can hit the reader in the guts so many times in such a relatively short novel is incredibly impressive.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I actually added this to my TBR after reading your review, so I have you to thank for this! I stayed up late reading last night and then I read the last 20 pages this morning before going to work, which was an emotionally draining way to spend my morning. It was so insanely good though. So many lines were like a gut punch, you’re so right. That one line that was like, ‘I did that, but if you put a gun to my head I couldn’t tell you why’ really got me. These characters were so flawed and fragile and human, and Melody is one of the best narrators I’ve read in a long time.

      Liked by 1 person

      • You’re very welcome! It’s always a great feeling (and a relief) when someone enjoys something you loved and recommended, haha.

        Very true, I still find myself thinking about the characters now. They felt so real.

        Liked by 1 person

    • At first I was a little afraid it was gonna be one of those Marriage Gone Bad books which I have had…. not great experiences with, BUT it was so much more than that and I’m so impressed that Ryan packed so much into such a little book. I think you will enjoy it when you are in the right mood!

      Liked by 1 person

    • I think you would, yes! It’s not like…… ‘wow this is such a Chelsea book’ but at the same time I think it would be hard not to appreciate what Ryan has achieved with this. So when you’re in a literary mood, I’d highly recommend it!!!

      Liked by 1 person

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