Donal Ryan’s third novel arrives freighted with the weight of expectation. His 2012 début, The Spinning Heart, scooped the Guardian First Book Award, the EU Prize for Literature (Ireland) and the Book of the Year at the Irish Book Awards. It was also longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, a vote of confidence for a first-time author. Alongside the awards were the fellow authors lining up to praise his writing: Sebastian Barry, Anne Enright and Edna O’Brien to name just a few.
Acclaimed for its depiction of life in rural Ireland in the aftermath of the financial crash, The Spinning Heart was a polyphonic novel narrated by 21 different voices. His second novel, The Thing About December, was set in the same Irish village a decade earlier at the very beginning of the economic boom, with the novel’s narrator, the innocent Johnsey Cunliffe, recounting the tragic events of a single year.
His third novel, All We Shall Know (Doubleday Ireland, September), follows nine months in the life of 33-year-old Melody Shee. She is pregnant, not by her husband Pat, whom she has been with since school, but by a 17-year-old Traveller boy named Martin Toppy. Melody was teaching Martin to read and write but now he’s gone. Pat leaves too, full of rage and pain, when Melody tells him the baby is not his.
Melody, funny, fierce and spirited, is trapped in the strange limbo of pregnancy. The baby will arrive whether she is ready or not, into the chaos she seems to have wreaked in her life. She wonders about killing herself in the first paragraph of the novel: “I don’t think it would hurt the baby. His little heart would stop with mine. He wouldn’t feel himself leaving one world of darkness for another, his spirit untangling itself from me.”
But Melody is not completely alone. Besides her elderly widower father, who dotes on his daughter but is bemused by her choices, there is 19-year-old Mary Crothery, a Traveller girl who Melody meets at the halting (caravan) site when attempting to return a book to Martin. Melody finds she has a deep and unexpected connection with Mary, a girl who has been ostracised by her tight-knit Traveller family. Melody is also thinking a lot about her past and her memories of a schoolfriend, Breedie Flynn.
One of the most striking things about this stunning novel is Melody’s narrative voice. When we meet in central London, Donal Ryan having flown over from Ireland, he explains that when he began the novel around five years ago, he tried to write it in epistolary form; a combination of letters, emails and diary entries. But, he explains in his strong Limerick accent, it was too contrived: “It just wouldn’t work for me. I couldn’t shape it. I couldn’t make it feel natural.”
Instead Melody’s story unfolds with a powerful immediacy. “Melody is in the moment all the time and she’s describing the current moment all the time. I mean, who is she talking to? Is it inside her head? Is she writing it down in a journal? But The Spinning Heart was kind of the same; the characters deliver these monologues and there’s no specific, expressed reason why they do.”
Melody’s pregnancy dominates the novel, and the descriptions of morning sickness and all the other attendant discomforts are spot on. When Ryan started to write, his wife had just had their second child, so he had “lived through her two pregnancies”. He is an extraordinarily perceptive writer, but he says, modestly: “Fiction is always a series of guesses, some informed and some less so, but you’re always guessing, bobbing around in darkness, or semi-darkness, and trying to find a light.”
Ryan is an author who writes from the heart: “I get so immersed, I forget where I am. I hear the voices so clearly…and then the stories just unfold very naturally. If I think about plot, it always goes wrong for me.” He is not a big fan of research, either. “I do find when I research anything forensically and laboriously, when I write about that thing it just always seems contrived or false to me. It just never seems real. So when it comes to research, I think laziness is the best way,” he jokes.
The Irish Traveller community, with its customs and codes of honour—which can seem so strange to outsiders—is sensitively portrayed in the novel. Travellers, he says, are fascinating people. “They’ve always been in my life, from a very young age. There were people from the Travelling community in my class at school, primary and secondary, and I’ve a very close friend from a Traveller background.”
Indeed, the original spark for the novel came from Ryan’s memory of brief conversations with a Traveller girl. When sharing a house in Limerick in his early twenties, a girl would chat to him and his housemates if she saw them in the street: “She seemed to have no friends, which was very unusual because young Traveller girls seem to travel in packs. She seemed to have been ostracised for some reason but she never told us why... I remember once she said something about being on her own, being cast out, because she messed up.” Originally Ryan planned to have Mary speak in the Traveller dialect, Cant, but soon realised that would necessitate having a glossary of terms in the novel because the language was “too esoteric and not really illuminated by context either”.
All We Shall Know is set in the same village as his previous novels. “Sure, why not, like?” he says. “All human life is there. The landscape, the lexicon, the language are so accessible, just right there. Like things you can take out of a drawer and use and then put back again.”
It is now the stuff of legend how long it took Ryan to find a publisher for his work. He had actually written both The Spinning Heart and The Thing About December before getting a deal. For the record, he received 47 rejections over three years before Dublin independent The Lilliput Press showed an interest, closely followed by Doubleday Ireland.
Success followed and two and half years ago he took a three-year sabbatical from his job in the Irish civil service in order to write full-time. But he will be back at his office desk next March, failing a “financial miracle”, he says. I think he is joking at first, but such is the precariousness of making a living from literary fiction.
He holds a writing fellowship at the University of Limerick and is already working on his fourth novel which sounds as though it will have the same extraordinary blend of bleakness and humour as his other books. Ryan, again very modestly, explains his writing thus: “It seems to arise naturally from the language and the way people tell stories where I’m from. They can tell the most horrific story, but it will always be told in a darkly humorous way. It seems like a very necessary thing. Where I’m from you can describe someone’s death and it’ll be half a big joke, and half a terrible tale of sadness, sorrow and loss.”
Imprint: Doubleday Ireland
Formats: HB (£12.99)/EB (£8.34)
ISBN: 9780857524379/ 9781473509955
Rights sold: US (Penguin), Germany, France, Denmark, Netherlands, Czech Republic
Editor: Brian Langan
This article was originally published in The Bookseller magazine on 1st July 2016.
Picture: © Anthony Woods