2018 Man Booker review: From a Low and Quiet Sea

28th August 2018

From a Low and Quiet Sea, Donal Ryan

Doubleday Ireland

Reviewed by Jill Glenn

You could argue about whether Donal Ryan’s ‘From a Low and Quiet Sea’, his third novel (and second to be longlisted for the Man Booker prize, following ‘The Spinning Heart’ in 2013) is a novel at all. At first glance, with fewer than 200 pages it might more accurately merit being called a novella, a form that’s often looked down on in a society that tends to venerate bigger, better, faster and more. Further investigation, and the slow, meditative reading that Ryan’s work deserves and rewards, reveals that it is, in fact, constructed of three distinct, apparently unrelated, long stories, and a short concluding section that links them all together in a startling heartbreaking collision of lives.

What you couldn’t argue about, though, is the quality of Ryan’s writing, and his ability to probe and penetrate the tender places in men’s hearts. This is a novel mainly of men – the women exist largely as peripheral figures: influential but shadowy – and it’s none the worse for that; it’s not a failing, but a deliberate choice of focus. Via fluid, elongated sentences Ryan invites us in to three different emotionally complex lives, and asks us to live with them, lightly, just for now…

First we meet Farouk, a doctor escaping with his wife and child from war-torn Syria, in search of a better future; indeed, in search of any future at all. Betrayed by the human smugglers to whom he entrusts himself and his family, he finds himself in a migrant camp, suspended between one life and the next, with only hope for company. Lyrically written, this is nevertheless a hard-hitting section, breathing individuality into all the refugee stories that cannot be told.

Next we are in small town Ireland, with Laurence, aka Lampy. He’s 23; he lives at home with his mother and grandfather, working as a shuttle bus driver for a local elderly care home, and spending all his time brooding over his lost love, Chloe, who has gone off to Dublin to study, casting Lampy and all his plans and dreams aside. It’s a spare, sparse existence, both very sad and very funny in Ryan’s deft telling.

And finally there’s John, easily the least appealing of the three, who is in sombre mood as he approaches the end of his life; he repents of his sins (of which there are many) in a compelling internal monologue that addresses the failings in his upbringing and the failings that led to in himself.

On one level these are ‘just’ character studies – where the word ‘just’ stands for a brave decision not to work them into the ground. You could write an epic around these people, for they are fully formed and rich in possibility. The temptation to exploit them must have been strong.

It will endure longer in the memory as its stands, though. Written with both elegance and compassion ‘From a Low and Quiet Sea’ is a powerful study of love and loss, of what makes us human and what makes us connected. It may be small, but it’s perfectly formed.

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