From A Low and Quiet Sea by Donal Ryan | Book Review

I read this book because it was long listed for the 2018 Man Booker Prize and while I appreciated the quality of prose, I think I agree with the judges’ decision not to include it in the shortlist. Three separate narratives are depicted in this novel by Irish writer, Donal Ryan.

The first is a sadly-familiar refugee story, where the main character is a middle Eastern doctor named Farouk, defined by his attempt to get his wife and daughter away from the violent society of their home but also conflicted by the desire to follow the traditions and reap the benefits that such a patriarchal order might bring a man like him. I liked the writing but the most significant quality of the story seems to be its blurriness where we see what is going on but without the sharp definitions of time and space, much like the cover photo promises.

The second story was a rather odd narrative following a young man nicknamed Lampy who is defined by his relationships with his mother and grandfather, a failed romance with one girlfriend and the way he tries to replace her with physical gratification from another. The crass jokes that his grandfather tells and the secrets his mother keeps about his father’s identity contrast nicely with the fierce way they both try to protect our young hero and it is within this context that Ryan comments on the harsh reality facing that of the hopeful immigrant. On page 91, Lampy overhears Pop saying, “Why does he think I killed myself off buying this house… The way there’d be something for him. Something he could say was his. A good start-off in life There’s no one will hand him a house out foreign. They’ll use him to his bones then f–k him back and half his life down a hole,” and in this way, Ryan’s sad commentary continues the tragedy he first introduced with Farouk’s story and it shocks your emotion when you realize how true it all is, this harsh treatment of strangers, even when the differences are only perceived, not real.

John is the third main character and the hero or villain of this story which is an adaptation of the Biblical ten commandments with John’s confession of how he has broken every single one of these tenets. Reading this left me with ambiguous feelings because I didn’t know whether I admired his honesty, his owning up to everything he’d done, even if it made him look bad.

As usually happens when I read books by Irish authors, I learn new words. Why is that? Is that a characteristic of Irish writers that their prose includes $5 words even in basic descriptions. Here is a roundup of some of the words I learned and their context:

  • sliotar as in, “He was ten or eleven and they’d been plucking a sliotar across the green in the centre of the estate, short pucks and low, for far their ball would land in the neighbour’s yard…” p. 53 Note the British spelling of centre and neighbour
  • gowl as in, “She was only a gowl and she sat straight up in her seat, crying silently, saying, low, in a whisper, Bring me home Lampy…” p.64
  • solecism as in, “A solecism in my speech would become an erratum on some celestial scroll, I thought, and I’d be flayed for ever for it in the fires of Hell, O Lord God, the things I believed.” p 103

Some of these are words that become important in the grasping of the story – a sliotar is a ball used in the game of hurling, defined by the fact that the ball is made from cork covered with two separate pieces of leather stitched together. Ryan’s novel, then, could have been titled Sliotar but I suppose readers (like me) might have been put off by not knowing what the title meant.

My Rating: 4/5 stars

I gave this book 4 stars because:

  1. The story encouraged profound thought about the things that define us
  2. I liked Ryan’s comparison of the role of men at various levels of society and the different kinds of interaction they have with others
  3. Literary comparisons and Biblical retellings always hit the mark with me and Ryan used fairy tales, fables and religious stories to illustrate the experiences of his characters
  4. I liked the multiplicity of connections between the stories

It lost a star because it didn’t feel complete in its treatment of any of the subjects the author broached. Like it spoke about immigration and the losses experienced by refugees but got blurry when it came time to elaborate on the bureaucratic challenges. Similarly, it delved into the fears that keep an ambitious young man at home even when he might want to strike out and find his own fortune but it compromised on naming the big bad wolf that threatened the little pigs.

Overall, this is a book that I highly recommend. It’s brevity touches on, even if it doesn’t explain, significant issues and I was a little disappointed that it didn’t make the Man Booker shortlist because I thought it had the literary quality that the prize usually recognizes.

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4 Comments Add yours

  1. Kay R. says:

    Ahhh sounds like a really good one! Ill add to my TBR!


    1. Run Wright says:

      Definitely recommend!


  2. I’m Irish and my kids play camogie ( hurling for girls!) I’m loving your reference to the sliotar…and pucking. We forget how Irish the game is !!


    1. Run Wright says:

      Oh, that’s so great to hear. I love learning about other cultures and it seems I have lots to learn about the Irish. For now, I am enjoying the tour through fiction

      Liked by 1 person

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