by Donal Ryan | Doubleday Ireland | 208pp | £12.99 pb
review by Joanne O’Sullivan
“…is a perfect example of how Ryan seamlessly incorporates heartfelt emotion with complex experiences.”
With his trademark light touch and emotional craftsmanship, Donal Ryan charts a journey through alienation, loss and love in his latest novel, Strange Flowers. One morning Moll Gladney gets on a bus from her small village in Tipperary to Nenagh, and takes the bus to Dublin. She disappears without a trace, leaving behind her heartbroken parents Paddy and Kit. But it’s only the beginning of a long and elaborate story, that will eventually encompass struggles of race, religion, sexuality and family.
Moll doesn’t stay lost forever, and her return to the family home five years later brings even more questions and secrets to the surface. She’s spent her runaway years in London, working in hotels and consoling herself with her belief that she was only destined to bring her parents shame for who she was. When she arrives home, she is soon followed by a man claiming to be her husband and with their young son in tow. Alexander Elmwood is black, while their son Joshua is white. Moll’s parents are shocked by the revelation of their daughter’s child and relationship, and there are the expected tensions and small-town reactions to a black Englishman coming to live on a hillside in north Tipperary in the 1970s.
Paddy and Kit, however, immediately accept their son-in-law and grandson, and what follows is a heartfelt story of how Alex finds a place for himself in the small community. He learns to play hurling, becoming an infamous fixture on the county GAA pitches, and develops a career as a landscape gardener. Of course, Alex is still faced with racism and prejudice from some quarters; while his son Joshua tries to come to terms with the complicated nature of his parents’ relationship. The racism Alex endures can be hard to read, and Ryan writes Ireland so well you can’t help but feel implicated in the prejudices and negative attitudes at times. Nevertheless, the close relationship that Alex develops with his father-in-law Paddy, and the tender relationship between Joshua and his father are some of the most satisfying and affecting elements of the novel. The latter part of the book follows Joshua, as he too chooses to run away to London. Initially, his journey isn’t as satisfying as the emotionally rich first half of the story—but as it unfolds you can appreciate that Ryan has designed Joshua’s journey with purpose and skill.
It’s not Ryan’s first time representing marginalised characters in fiction, and it’s clear that he puts a lot of thought and effort into adequately portraying the struggles of outsiders. His novel From a Low and Quiet Sea featured Farouk—a Syrian refugee fleeing his war-torn country—while his book All We Shall Know featured vibrant characters from the Irish travelling community and highlighted the racism they still endure today. The Irish Times reported that he and his publishers engaged the services of a ‘sensitivity reader’ to ensure that they were achieving the right balance of portraying racism while respectfully telling Alex’s story.
In Strange Flowers, Ryan has fully embraced his poetic voice; and the story is heavy with pathos. A lesser writer’s attempts at this level of profound would easily fail, coming across as overly sentimental or grandiose. But Ryan is speaking from a place of vision and awareness, and he has done the work of crafting his style in his earliest novels, The Spinning Heart and The Thing About December. Anne Enright was right when she remarked that his ‘heart is always on show’, and Strange Flowers is a perfect example of how Ryan seamlessly incorporates heartfelt emotion with complex experiences. Rather than feeling heavy-handed or dramatic, his work is based on a deep sense of empathy and sincerity—and Strange Flowers is evidence of a writer growing into his prime.
Joanne O’Sullivan presents All About Books for Dublin City FM (103.2),
a weekly dive into the world of books and publishing.