Booker Longlist Review: From A Low and Quiet Sea by Donal Ryan

I’ve been waiting for this novel for a while, and when it landed on my ereader I told myself I would go slow. I couldn’t do it. The language sucked me in and I kept reading until I finished. It’s a short novel but packed with beautiful imagery and interesting characters.

Donal Ryan Cover

The book is divided into four parts, with the first three introducing different narrators and settings and the fourth bring the three disparate stories together. The first, Farouk’s story, is shattering. Farouk is a doctor in Syria and he and his family have paid a broker to get them out, via boat, to Europe and future safety. Farouk’s wife is ready to take the risk and their daughter is cheerful and relatively unaware. When things go terribly wrong, Farouk can’t cope with the reality.

What worked so well for me in this story was that Ryan didn’t attempt to portray a highly realistic and detailed portrait of a Syrian refugee’s life and context. Instead, he concentrates on Farouk the relatively privileged, educated man who has confidence that his money and sophistication will keep him from making avoidable or irretrievable mistakes. He doesn’t, and that compounds the tragedy and makes it even harder for him to come to terms with what happens. It’s a different way to approach a refugee as Anyman, emphasis on the “man,” because were we to see the story through his wife Martha’s eyes it would have been a different one. While as a reader I concentrated on the story being told, I realized in retrospect that this was also a story about masculinity and how it privileges and confines Farouk.

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