FROM A LOW AND QUIET SEA by Donal Ryan
Penguin Books, July 17, 2018
From a Low and Quiet Sea is my second Donal Ryan novel after All We Shall Know, and so far he’s two for two if we’re grading for emotional devastation and positively stunning prose. Ryan’s style is everything I love about contemporary Irish literature incarnate – the lyrical, almost breathless writing which deftly balances black humor with an aching sadness, the quiet introspection of his characters, the skillful exploration of pain and loss and grief and religion and loneliness.
From a Low and Quiet Sea is essentially a series of three short stories – the first follows Farouk, a Syrian refugee who pays a man to help him escape his country with his wife and daughter; the second is about Lampy, an Irish teenager who lives with his mom and grandfather and who’s still desperately in love with his ex-girlfriend; and the third follows John, an old man who grew up under the shadow of his brother’s death. Their stories converge at the end rather unexpectedly, but in a way that I thought was rather brilliantly conceived.
As with any novel that changes perspectives, it’s inevitable that some will be stronger than others. The opening chapter – Farouk’s – is far and away the most accomplished of the three. Ryan doesn’t rest on the already tragic premise; he crafts a positively harrowing journey for this character, and as we wrap up his story and proceed into the second section, it’s almost painful leaving him behind. John’s chapter is stunning as well – it’s the only one told in first-person, as his story takes the form of a confession – and of the three it’s the most episodic, lending it a very readable quality while still getting to the heart of this troubled and compelling character. For me, Lampy’s chapter was notably the weakest. Though there was some poignant commentary here about growing up fatherless, I felt that there wasn’t enough of a story or a character arc to justify this section’s length.
This is one of those books that was stressing me out as I headed toward the conclusion, because I couldn’t even begin to imagine what was going to connect these three disparate stories, and I was almost afraid that whatever Ryan had come up with wasn’t going to be satisfying enough. I needn’t have worried – the resolution is surprising but gratifying. There’s also an undeniable thematic interconnectedness that I thought was handled wonderfully throughout the book. I thought Ryan’s examination of the role of storytelling in the lives of these three men was a beautiful element, as well as the similar yet distinct meditations on loneliness and grief as each of these characters search for some kind of peace.
4.5, which I’m rounding down now for the weak middle section, but which I may round up later depending on how this book stays with me over time. I really loved this.
Thank you to Penguin Books and Donal Ryan for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.