When Donal Ryan mixes equal parts terror and wistful the results can be mesmerising. The title story of his debut collection, A Slanting of the Sun concerns a robbery executed with extreme violence. In the story, a masked youth locks eyes with his victim, and is unable to deliver the violence he has been ordered to inflict with the required speed and callousness.
Similarly in The Passion, the opening story, a young man crashes a car and a young woman dies. A wave of dynastic fury flows towards the hapless perpetrator, while an unexpected sensual attraction develops between the young driver and the girl’s mother. Ryan’s ability to establish a convincing confessional tone for his narrator is striking, the voyage around the inside of his head. The young man facing the rigours of the law and a family’s wrath has a resigned sense of immediate doom. However, he may rescue things if he leaves the country, like many an emigrant before him.
There’s a kind of peace now in the knowing of the routes I have lying stretched away before me, but only two of them, and they as clear as if they were drawn in black marker on a white page, with my present life a dot in the fork of their meeting. One is death and one is life.
Ryan’s stories remind the reader that one wrong step on anyone’s part could potentially ruin several lives. Families will carry the scars forever is the implication, as the scenarios mostly take place in small Irish towns. In The Squad, a young man rapes a young woman and is subsequently shot dead in a revenge act. Despite his crime, one is swayed to curiosity about the young man, who we never hear from and who has been released from prison six years before the end of his sentence. He is a mere blip on the local horizon, summarily blown away without time for a prayer, in a conspiracy of self-righteousness. But the father of the girl is a shadow of the man he once was, gone to half-nothing, so nothing is simple.
Perhaps the most moving story in the book is Sky, about a lost nephew who had been effectively reared in the home of the narrator, his uncle, whose sister’s marriage had been breaking down through most of the boy’s childhood. The uncle reveals how in later life he has tried to track down the young lad without success. He misses him viscerally. . . .a fierce longing had grown inside me for just a look at Billy, for a day with him, for an afternoon even . .
Losers Weepers is a charming, engaging story about a lost engagement ring, which ends with the kind of twist in the tale that Roald Dahl would have been proud of in his Tales of the Unexpected. Ryan can be lyrical and tender too, as in the story Aisling, which concerns a short summer fling between a young barman and an ambitious young girl who leaves for college. “She gave me the road not long after,” says the rejected youth. Ryan’s prose runs on a healthy sprinkling of such vernacular ruralisms, clearly part of his charm for Irish readers. “For a finish” is another phrase that keeps recurring, one peculiar to West Limerick, it seems.
Nephthys and the Lark spends much of its time portraying a day in the life of an unashamed yummy mummy. The conclusion delivers another twist in the tale, as we learn something about the woman that is shocking yet curiously mundane in its setting. The story begins with two sentences which show how lyrical Ryan can be in his prose, an antidote, as it were, to the decidedly dark matter that abounds. She couldn’t sleep past dawn for the sound of the wind. It seemed always to funnel down this road, pressed to wild gusts between the rows of houses.
Not all the stories work so well. Retirement Do tracks the last grisly act of a serial killer who decides to give himself up, hence the title. It seems slight, done more for shock effect than for verisimilitude. However, in many of these stories, Donal Ryan proves himself yet again to be one of the most imaginatively daring writers at work in English today.
Read Paddy Kehoe's recent interview with Donal Ryan here