Donal Ryan is probably still best known for his first novel, “The Spinning Heart,” which came out of the blue in 2012 to win accolades and prizes, including Ireland’s Book of the Year award. Since then he has published a collection of stories and now, with “From a Low and Quiet Sea,” three further novels. With one exception, his tales proceed in the voices of Irish people, most of them pursuing small-town and country lives during the early 21st-century economic boom and bust, which so altered the land and its people.
The present book begins in Syria, the setting Ryan used for his short story “Long Puck,” about an Irish priest who introduces hurling to a group of eager young men — until religious fanaticism seizes the region and all hell breaks loose. That same murderous boil, a “tiny Armageddon,” marks the beginning of “From a Low and Quiet Sea.” Farouk, husband and father, puts himself in the hands of a shady-looking character who promises to smuggle his little family to Europe by ship. The risk is terrible; the upshot is tragedy.
The second part finds 23-year-old Lampy, who lives with his doting mother and grandfather. Distracted and melancholy over his lost love, Chloe, who left for university and a new life, Lampy works in a home for elderly people run by a conscienceless, corner-cutting operator. Today his job is to get a number of the residents to their various appointments in the new van. “You couldn’t trust these modern yokes,” declares one of the old passengers, an ex-bus driver: “Too many faldidles and fiddly bits. Microchips. Whatever the blazes they are. Yokes designed to go wrong.” And indeed this one has, with resulting calamity.
And so we are brought to a third part where we meet John, a successful lobbyist and fixer, a man whose parents had despised him for living on while their favored son died at an early age. Since then John has taken pleasure in the grievous harm his machinations have done others. Then, in married middle age, he meets a young woman with whom he becomes smitten — and so rolls out another unfortunate scenario.
A fourth part is a happier affair and brings the three stories together with pleasing ingenuity. The plot has a nice snap, but the novel’s true excellence lies in Ryan’s skill in moving the story along through the thoughts of his characters. The heart of his craft lies in his mastery of Irish voices, limber colloquial speech that captures their mental and spiritual universe. In this regard, the Syrian’s story has a rather pro forma worthiness about it, unlike the following three, which breathe real life, making this another fine and memorable novel from one of Ireland’s most impressive writers.
Katherine A. Powers, a Minnesota native, reviews for the Washington Post, Barnes & Noble and elsewhere.
From a Low and Quiet Sea
By: Donal Ryan.
Publisher: Penguin, 174 pages, $16.