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15 April 2018updated 24 Jun 2021 12:24pm

Donal Ryan’s From a Low and Quiet Sea is a vivid tale of intertwined Irish lives

Roddy Doyle, in an admiring blurb, calls Donal Ryan’s fifth book a novel, but it might be described equally as a collection of long, linked stories.

By Erica Wagner

One day, when John was a boy in rural Ireland, a classmate read out a poem he’d written in Brother Alphonsus Keane’s English class. John, long grown into a ruthless man who calls himself an accountant but whose dealings are very much on the shady side of that business, somehow recalls the words to the first verse of the poem, a portrait of the Norman invasion of their homeland: “Armoured they came from the east/From a low and quiet sea./We were a naked rabble, throwing stones;/They laughed, and slaughtered us.”

John kicks the poet in the balls for his trouble; a brutal act that augurs a brutal life. That his schoolmate’s poem gives this evocative novel its title lends menace to words that might otherwise seem peaceful, calming. But for the characters in the book, there is little peace to be had, and at its outset that low and quiet sea brings death and danger as surely as the Normans did.

Roddy Doyle, in an admiring blurb, calls Donal Ryan’s fifth book a novel, but it might be described equally as a collection of long, linked stories, a sequence of narratives whose true connections only become clear at the end. It begins a long way from Ireland: in Syria, as Farouk, a doctor, buys his way on to a boat to escape the terrible war and build new lives  for himself and his beloved wife, Martha, and his daughter, Amira. He has tried to protect his daughter for as long as he can from the truth of their situation, telling her that the gunfire she heard “was the noise of a great machine that was being used to frighten birds away from crops”. He knows, somehow, that she does not believe him, and finally his family’s fate is snatched from his hands.

Next comes the story of Lampy, 23 years old, living at home near Limerick with his mother and grandfather, desultorily driving the bus for the local old folks’ home but himself driven to distraction by his love for Chloe, and driven to anger by provocations that are often mysterious to him – a hidden interior violence whose source he seeks. What is his link to Farouk, or to John, whose narrative follows? Why is John, an irreligious man, telling his own story through the medium of the confessional, revealing how his family fractured after the sudden death of his brother; revealing his obsession with a young woman he met in a bar and made his mistress? How does the blue and deadly Mediterranean connect with the ocean off the west coast of Ireland to knit all these
stories together?

Rest assured, they do knit together, but not in a manner dependent on unlikely coincidence – a danger this sort of story could fall into. It is rather as if Ryan, an accomplished writer whose first novel, The Spinning Heart, was voted “Irish Book of the Decade” in 2016, has worked backwards from his climax, asking himself how the lives in the book’s final scene could have found an intersection. Ireland is thought of as a nation of emigrants, a place that has never really recovered from the great diaspora provoked by the famine, a tragedy briefly referenced here. But Ryan’s novel makes Ireland the destination: Farouk’s tentative steps to a new life are supported by a local community as surprised to find him a part of it as he is himself.

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Ryan’s writing is propulsive, fluid with run-on sentences that capture the thoughts of his characters, from Farouk’s blunt shock upon encountering the boat he hopes will take him and his family to safety, to Lampy’s sexual yearning for Chloe, to John’s casual cruelty, sprung from a bitter wound. Everyone in this book is trying to find a kind of belonging, and it always seems just out of reach, receding like the tide. “How could he tell his grandfather that he wanted to find a place where the measure of a man was different?” Lampy thinks. “Not linked to money or to sport or a road in a town. Or was it the same everywhere?”

So it is: but the lives and stories, loves and tragedies, animating From a Low and Quiet Sea are wonderfully individual and finely alive. This is a brief book: yet one that lingers long in the reader’s mind. 

From a Low and Quiet Sea
Donal Ryan
Doubleday, 192pp, £12.99

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This article appears in the 11 Apr 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Syria’s world war