All We Shall Know by Donal Ryan
This is Irish author Donal Ryan’s third novel, and despite not having read his previous two, it’s clear that he’s an author really getting into his stride for All We Shall Know is both accomplished and a compulsive read.
His first novel, The Spinning Heart won major prizes and was short/long-listed for the Booker and IMPAC prizes. I gather from Susan’s review that his second was somewhat trickier. This was followed by a book of short stories.
All We Shall Know tells the story of Melody Shee and the opening lines are arresting to say the least:
Martin Toppy is the son of a famous Traveller and the father of my unborn child. He’s seventeen, I’m thirty-three. I was his teacher. I’d have killed myself by now if I was brave enough.
Melody had been teaching young Martin to read. When her husband Pat returns from weeks away installing water meters and she tells he she’s pregnant – she says it was a man she’d met online – he walks out.
Are we even now? His voice was low, almost a whisper. I didn’t reply.
I always loved you, Melody Shee, he said.
All I said back was, Goodbye, Pat. (week 12)
It’s apparent that Melody and Pat’s relationship hasn’t been functioning well for some time, and we’ll get the full story as the novel progresses. Melody starts the narrative at week twelve of her pregnancy and the chapters follow week by week up to the birth.
So here I am still, less sick but no more mobile. Aren’t I rightly landed? Forty years ago I’d have been taken bodily away and set to work on the stained vestments of righteous men, the shirts and smocks and socks and smalls of those still in good standing the Almighty, my baby dragged from me and sold and spirited away to live in grace away from my foulness. (week 13)
Melody has a hard time, not with the baby itself, but with attitudes of those around her towards her adultery. Although the days of the Magdalene laundries are over, It’s still one thing for men to sow their oats elsewhere, but remains unforgiveable for women. Unfortunately Melody makes it worse for herself by being thoroughly bitchy and unlikeable at times. Thank goodness for her father who is just lovely and loving.
Melody is drawn to the Traveller site, hoping to catch a glimpse of Martin – but he’s gone tarmacking with the other men. However, Melody does strike up a tentative friendship there with teenager Mary Crothery – who has baby problems of her own. Mary was married off young, but unable to conceive, left her equally young husband, setting off a clan war within the Traveller community. Mary has brought disgrace on her family who must pay. Melody takes her under her wing for companionship and teaches her to read too.
In a small sub-plot Melody gradually shares the story of her best friend at school Breedie Flynn, who died. I couldn’t help but think of Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls here rather than the more in-your-face meanness of some of Louise O’Neill’s contemporary Irish schoolgirls in Asking For It. Ryan’s teases the relationship between Melody and Breedie out with great subtlety. He also captures that small town mentality where everyone knows, and interferes in given the chance, each other’s business so well.
Throughout this novel Ryan shows a great ear for dialogue, eschewing punctuation – but it is always clear, and this uncluttered approach allows Melody’s narration to really shine. She’s witty, sarcastic and bitter, she wants to be independent, but is also needy and she loves her father, and the baby is making her hormones wild! Melody is brilliantly realized as a character and you can’t help but be sympathetic, even when she is in fighting mood.
I found this novel unputdownable, I had to know what happened to Melody and Mary. Obviously, I’m not going to spoil things, but the ending is superb! (10/10)
* * * * *
Source: Publisher via Amazon Vine – thank you.
Donal Ryan, All We Shall Know (Doubleday, Sept 2016) Hardback, 192 pages.#