Strange Flowers – Donal Ryan (Doubleday 2020)

When I read Donal Ryan’s debut “The Spinning Heart” in 2013 I was so impressed.  I completed it very early on in the year and it still managed to make the runner up spot in my Books Of The Year (behind Robert Lohr’s 2007 “Secrets Of The Chess Machine”. What an under-rated book that was).  I felt like I was really at the start of something when I was sent Ryan’s debut to review.  My thoughts about it featured alongside an interview with the author in Newbooks (NB) magazine and the novel won the Guardian First Book Award, The Book Of The Year at the Irish Book Awards amongst other accolades and was later voted “Irish Book Of The Decade”.  I made my own claim to the lasting power of this book in 2015 when I put the title forward in the winter edition of NB/Newbooks as my choice for the Best Book Of The 21st Century So Far.

Here’s the strange thing- despite my great love for this title I have not got around to reading anything else by this author who has since published  a short-story collection and three novels (his last “From A Low And Quiet Sea” making the 2018 Costa Novel Shortlist).  I was delighted to be offered a chance to advance review this, his fifth novel, by his publishers to put my previous oversights right.

The thing I have to get over first of all is that it didn’t blow me away like the debut did, so there’s unfortunately already a trickle of disappointment creeping in.  This was added to slightly by the narrative structure chosen, the debut drew the reader in with 21 people telling their tale creating a community with wonderful, economic writing which really brought these characters alive. Here we have a very factual narrative, written like a fable or fairy tale, which makes obviously for good story-telling but holds the reader at arm’s length and delays an emotional attachment with the characters developing.  This is obviously a popular style at the moment as Edmund White has surprisingly utilised something similar in his latest “A Saint From Texas”.

We begin in the early 1970s in Tipperary and the novel focuses on three generations of the Gladney family.  Paddy, a postman who also works on the land of the Jackman family where his cottage is situated and his wife, Kit, are reeling from the disappearance of their daughter Moll.  This can be seen as a novel about returning home and being satisfied with one’s lot as characters seem happiest when they have returned home to live a simpler life in the Tipperary countryside.

For the first half of the novel I was impressed by the quality of the writing but not totally involved but perhaps by two-thirds of the way through the undeniable genius of Donal Ryan had worked its magic and despite writing in a style which was keeping me at a distance I discovered  I really cared for some of these characters (I adored Alexander) and ended up feeling quite misty-eyed by the end.  I’m not sure how the author did this to me.  Once again it is a deceptively simple work which is much richer in characterisation and symbolism than it first appears- perhaps working in that subliminal way in which we as children relate to fantasy and traditional stories which the structure of this ultimately satisfying work echoes.

Strange Flowers was published in hardback by Doubleday on  20th August 2020.  Many thanks to the publishers for selecting me to review an advance copy and to Netgalley for making that available.

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