It took me two readings to “get” this one, but it was definitely worth it because this is a totally wonderful book. But it’s neither an easy read nor a fun one. I actually didn’t think much of it for quite a long ways in, maybe 1/2 way, but by the time the reader was doing the credits I was smiling and thoughtful. Bravo!
Then, after checking a couple reviews, I decided to reread it pronto because it is so short and I felt I’d missed a lot. The last couple chapters tie it all together but if you don’t have a firm hold on the story threads it’s not going to mean much. On the second reading I found there were several more elements, some vital, which unite the characters and the stories than I’d understood on the first reading.
From a Low and Quiet Sea
by Donal Ryan
2018/ 192 pages
read by 6 narrators – 5h 42m
rating: 9 / contemp fiction
None of the three very distinct stories about different men in different parts of the world has a real ending. The last couple chapters unite the stories into a cohesive novel. It’s actually brilliant, imo.
The first story is that of a refugee family from the war in Syria. Farouk, a doctor and the son of an apostate, is the focus character. He fears the coming terrorist/ fundamentalist regime and puts his life along with the lives of his family beloved into the hands of human smugglers in order to get to Europe. He is presented quite indirectly, almost like a 1st person. It’s very intense.
The second story is that of Lampy, a 23-year old bus driver from a small town in Ireland who is still in love with a woman who rejected him and whose family has secrets. He, a good Catholic boy, carries enormous guilt and anger and a restless ambition.
And the third story concerns a man named John, a very rich accountant, lobbyist and “fixer,’ who is making his life confession to a priest. He says he has broken every commandment as tells his story. He’s married with children, but fell in love with a waitress.
All three are looking for answers to their existential questions about real life pain. It all comes together with surprise and incredible impact. (I actually read the last long chapter three times.)
Donal Ryan writes beautifully, light and real, but still with an underlying intensity which is striking in addition to appropriate metaphors as well as the occasional very very light foreshadowing.
“He wasn’t sure of himself: he wasn’t able even to walk without considering his gait, the sureness of his step, whether his bearing seemed manly enough, whether his handshake was firm enough, without being so firm as to represent a challenge to the strangers, transmitted through their fingers and their palms.” (p. 2)
As the title suggests, water and the ocean are involved always involved if only peripherally, but there are also multiple themes which flow through each of the separate stories, loss, guilt, family, honor, money, and storytelling. Religion also plays heavily in all of their stories, but more importantly, so does love.