Donal Ryan's recent stories, The Setting of The Sun were contained, restrained models of narrative astuteness, and a number of them rank among the finest short stories of recent times, published in English. Indeed his new novel works in a cameo reappearance for the characters from Passion, the first story in the collection.
His protagonist and narrator is Melody Shee, whose marriage to Pat began years ago in tenderness and sexual passion. The years have taken their toll, however, and the discovery that her husband has been seeing prostitutes has effectively called time on their relationship. Melody tells Pat that she is pregnant, but not by him and not disclosed either is the fact that she is pregnant by a 17-year old Traveller boy. Pat walks out on Melody who shortly after befriends a young Traveller woman. Melody's mother died years before, her sympathetic father tries to help and support his daughter as best he can. That curious avoidance, that is allied to a reluctant, unspoken recognition of awkward truths is characteristic of their (very Irish) relationship. Having few options left, Melody finally moves back in with her father.
Chapter headings count down towards the birth, beginning with Week Twelve and concluding with a chapter entitled Post-Partum. As the novel progresses, the local Traveller community begins to occupy the foreground, and a violent feud - connected in a very real way with Melody’s actions - gathers momentum. Suffice to say that Melody exists in the amniotic fluid of trouble which increases as the novel progresses.
Ryan - who won great acclaim in 2012 for his first-published novel, The Spinning Heart - delves deep in terms of ideas and psychology and he is not interested in untreated social realism. At times, he rises to unusual philosophical heights that add leaven to the 186-page story. The following passage from the novel isn't typical by any means, but it is interesting that it should be there.
But then. What does a thing look like that’s never looked at? Is it just the particles of itself, piled together, mostly nothingness? That must be how it is. A thing has form only when light is reflected from it into someone’s eye, and its image only exists as it’s told to exist in a dispatch from the mind, and even then it’s a compromise, an agreement between two eyes and two hemispheres of a brain, an impression.
This curious, brave novel will have you reflecting on its topical concerns, and its challenging version of contemporary Ireland, for days afterwards.
All we Shall Know is published by Doubleday in paperback
Read Paddy Kehoe's interview with the author here