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

by Sunita

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.

The second story is told from the perspective of Lampy, a young man who lives with his mother and grandfather in a village in Ireland, working for a care facility that cuts a lot of corners. Lampy is dissatisfied with his life but doesn’t really know what to do to change it. He passed up an opportunity to emigrate to Canada, mostly because he knows how much he means to his family. But he’s angry a lot and still depressed over the loss of the woman he considers his great love. We see him sparring with his grandfather, absent-mindedly carrying out his duties, and flashing back to good and bad episodes in his past. His absent father and illegitimate status have shaped his life, bringing another dimension of masculinity into the text. In a small village where you are your ancestors, Lampy is missing a major dimension. If Farouk is pushed out of his privileged context, Lampy is stuck in his disprivileged one.

The final character to tell his story is John, an older man who is essentially confessing to all his sins, which are many and sometimes terrible, spun out over the course of a long and busy life. The death of his beloved brother and favorite son shapes parental and sibling relationships in terrible ways, but it wasn’t clear to me that John wouldn’t have been pretty awful even without that tragedy. Be that as it may, he finds contemporaneous excuses for many of his most brutal and horrific actions, but in retrospect he knows his behavior for what it was.

The three stories are told in different registers, with different cadences and language. Ryan does a phenomenal job of making each character unique and individual, and the settings match the interpretations. Lampy’s is the most concrete, with Farouk’s and John’s being more abstract. In the final section the connections between the stories are shown to devastating effect. Some of the connections were clearly foreshadowed in the earlier sections, so they weren’t a surprise to me, but others were completely unexpected. There’s a little bit of writerliness in the wrapping up, but for the most part it is masterfully done.

This is an imaginative, unexpected, fascinating novel.

4.5 stars at Goodreads.