From a Low and Quiet Sea - Donal Ryan
From a Low and Quiet Sea - Donal Ryan ****
Divided into four short parts, Donal Ryan's From a Low and Quiet Sea appears to be a relatively simple and straightforward character study of three different people who we are led to believe will come together and connect in some way in the final part of the book. If that sounds like the novel is in reality three short stories that are tenuously linked together for the sake of novelistic purposes, in reality the technique actually captures something deeper about the nature of human experience, about life and the things that connect us all.
The stories of Farouk, Lampy and John do however all appear to take place in complete isolation from one another. Certainly Farouk's experience as a Syrian refugee is at least very different from the other two who live in the same part of the world around Limerick in Ireland, but the society and even the time period that Laurence (Lampy) and John don't make it seem that they are likely to connect. Come together in a tragic situation they do however, but Donal Ryan's From a Low and Quiet Sea has more to it than just showing that life sometimes works in mysterious ways.
The three men do at least have something in common and it's things that are common to the experience of us all as human beings; family, loss and change. For Farouk, a doctor who has witnessed the growing violence and religious intolerance in his home country, those deep human feelings and vulnerabilities are brought out (and symbolised) as he attempts to transport his wife and daughter to safety on a small boat in a stormy sea.
For Lampy, who has never known his father, family relationships have always been more complicated living with his single mother and a grandfather, Pop, who seems to be able to annoy and antagonise everyone with his quick and cutting wit. Just out of a first-love relationship with Chloe and uncertain about where he is going on the rebound with Eleanor, Lampy feels like he has never fitted in and, working as a driver transporting older people for a care home, he feels that his life is going nowhere.
Even though he has to all appearances had a much more influential and fulfilling life, John is now filled with regret for some of his more questionable actions as a landowner and lobbyist. The death of his older brother at a young age has undoubtedly had an impact on his family life, and grief and misdirected guilt may have twisted his ability to love and be human, but it's now as he sees the end of his life approaching that John reaches out to confess to a life characterised by bitterness, bullying and corruption.
Each of the three short stories is beautifully told, simple on the surface but clearly hinting at more profound and yet completely relatable everyday human issues. Bringing them together in the final chapter is more than an after-thought, a clever literary device or a contrivance, but an absolute necessity that gives a much wider perspective on the nature of family. In terms of the experience of a Syrian refugee and the Irish setting, the final section also brings in human diaspora, opening up another dimension way beyond the limitations of the lifespan and experience of the three men in the stories. Life is not a closed book and it doesn't end when the events related reach their conclusion, and this slim book likewise leaves you with the impression of something much bigger when it is closed.
From a Low and Quiet Sea by Donal Ryan is published by Penguin/Doubleday on 22 March 2018.