From a Low and Quiet Sea – Donal Ryan (2018) 181 pages
Last year I read The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan for NADIM and was so impressed by his writing. From a Low and Quiet Sea has absolutely confirmed this view. He is such an understated, sensitive and evocative writer, he’s fast becoming a real favourite.
The story begins with Farouk, and his decision to take his family and leave his homeland after the political situation becomes intolerable.
“He’d measured the weights of his conflicting duties carefully, he’d told his friend in the letter, and he’d measured and measured again, and he’d mourned the time when such duties weren’t in conflict one against the other but were all part of a good life and all given to the same end, but this was now how the world was, and he was left with no choice to get his daughter and his wife to safety.”
Unfortunately Farouk’s story plays out in a way that we would expect from watching the news. Ryan shows the devastation of political violence for this family without ever being mawkish or sentimental. It is unquestionably a tragedy, and it is insane that such tragedy has become predictable. Farouk’s PTSD is captured with tenderness and compassion:
“And late one evening he walked from the camp to the water’s edge and he stood beneath the smirking moon and looked out across the sea, and he wondered at the stillness of it, as though its breath were held, as though it were too ashamed to reveal anything of itself to him, to admit the violence latent in it, to the things it held”
The narrative then shifts perspective to that of Lampy, a young man living with his mother and grandfather. He is nursing a broken heart after the love of his life goes off to Dublin to study at Trinity:
“Twenty-three years old, in the name of God, and still being babied. His mother would be twisting a tea-towel in her hands, back and forth, as though trying to wring some peace from it, some way of settling herself.”
Lampy is somewhat lost. He never knew his father and doesn’t quite fit in with his family at home. His mother and grandfather adore him but are cut from very different cloth:
“His grandfather was wicked; when he was in form his tongue could slice the world in two.”
Lampy’s story is ordinary, but in his own way he is quite desperate, and this is the power of his story. Ryan demonstrates the deep pain that can lie behind the people we meet every day, leading routine lives.
Finally, John is reflecting on his past: his family’s grief for a brother who died suddenly, the bullying of his younger brother, and his life of violence and disappointment.
“My little brother Henry, who came along behind us as an afterthought, a tiny, soundless incarnation of a short renaissance in my parents’ feelings for one another. He was always scared, his smallness and his way of slinking about unseen, inhabiting the background like a soft hiss of white noise behind the ceaseless hum and hubbub of life.”
John is not likable, and nor is he meant to be. It is his story, of a man that causes disruption and disintegration wherever he goes, that brings all three men together.
Its extraordinary that in a short novel split into the three parts, the characterisation of Farouk, Lampy and John is so well developed and fully realised. The way the strands tie together is believable and not at all clunky.
From a Low and Quiet Sea is a stunning novella, perfectly crafted and intelligently written. Unflinching yet beautiful.