By Donal Ryan
Donal Ryan’s first and widely acclaimed novel, “The Spinning Heart” (2012), wove a story of everyday struggles — during Ireland’s economic depression — out of a chorus of narratives around two disquieting events: a man’s murder and a child’s abduction. Ryan surpassed that exceptional debut with “From a Low and Quiet Sea” (2018), in which the bereft voice of Farouk, a refugee, resonates amid the harsher tones of the Irish community into which, by an almost too neat chain of coincidences, he has been drawn.
“Strange Flowers,” Ryan’s sixth book, shows an exceptionally gifted novelist distancing himself from his characters. Previously, Ryan allowed his subjects to speak for themselves of their hatreds, their hopes and — heartbreakingly, in the case of Farouk — their reluctance to confront reality. Here, however, we see them through the writer’s eyes.
The novel, as with all Ryan’s work, is tightly compressed, skillfully whittled down to the point where each word carries far more than its weight. “All the light left Paddy Gladney’s eyes when his daughter disappeared,” the book’s opening words declare, in a paragraph that, while tenderly evoking the untroubled world of Ryan’s own childhood in Tipperary, describes the modest stone cottage in which the Gladney family — a prayerful mother, father and their lost, beloved child, Moll (“a good, good little girl”) — had once been happy:
“And they had a radio and a dresser and a yard of hens, and a green and yielding world around them in every direction: the Arra Mountains behind them and, beyond the brow of Ton Tenna, the shallow valley that dipped across to the Silvermines Mountains, which stretched away as far as the eye could see, to the ends of the earth, it seemed, on a bright day.”