In his latest novel, From a Low and Quiet Sea, Donal Ryan has taken three very different characters – Farouk, whose country has been torn apart by war; Lampy, a broken-hearted boy from Ireland; and elderly John, whose past sins are haunting him – and created something special.
The novel is structured simply – a short, stand-alone story for each character and a fourth concluding story that brings the three characters together. The danger of drawing a number of disparate stories together is that the overall result can seem contrived. Somehow, Ryan has avoided this – nothing in From a Low and Quiet Sea feels forced or out-of-place. The connections between each story, once revealed, are surprising but also make perfect sense. And the best bit? I didn’t see any of it coming. Quite a feat.
Ryan’s writing is gentle, mesmerizing, absorbing. Each story has themes of belonging and loss (with each character dealing with these things quite differently). There are some colourful secondary characters; moments of genuine tension; and fantastic dialogue (I enjoyed the Irish colloquialisms).
A few particular elements of the story stood out. Ryan opens with an observation about how trees in a forest sustain a starving tree through underground networks of fungi and roots (I suspect that Ryan has recently read The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben, a book that explores how trees communicate – coincidentally, I finished it a week before I started From a Low and Quiet Sea). It’s a fitting analogy for a book that goes on to examine the connections between people and how others support us in unexpected or hidden ways.
Of the three stories, my favourite was Farouk’s. As war breaks out in Farouk’s country (Syria), he decides to flee with his wife and daughter.
‘The war had come slowly, had accreted around them rather than exploded at their door. The police had turned to a militia. The town had filled with strangers armed with guns.’
Ryan’s descriptions of Farouk’s escape from Syria were frightening, and yet the fine detail in his writing shines. Of hearing gunshots at night, he says, ‘…and there were only the sounds of the cicadas, and her breaths, and in the far distance another series of crackling bursts, like dry leaves underfoot fragmenting to dust.’
Similarly, there’s a moment in John’s story where he is describing the impact of the death of his brother –
‘My father lost his first and best son and shortly after started buying land. As though to allow accommodation for the breadth and expanse of his sorrow.’
It’s a good example of Ryan’s ability to attach so much emotion to simple descriptions, and I think this is the most remarkable aspect of this novel. It’s a short book (approximately 190 pages) but don’t rush it.
I received my copy of From a Low and Quiet Sea from the publisher, Random House UK, via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.