You can’t travel far in the world without quickly coming across an Irish pub, be it in Kathmandu, La Paz or Ulaanbaatar. The Irish diaspora is vast, with 70 million people worldwide claiming Irish ancestry. But now, the nation of emigrants is becoming a nation of immigrants, and, in his book From a Low and Quiet Sea, Donal Ryan explores this new but essential component of 21st century Irish identity. To readers familiar with Ryan’s other works, it will come as no surprise that he centers this novel around characters underrepresented in Irish fiction.
Ryan introduces us to three separate characters, each given a section of the book. Each story is individually immersive and gripping. We begin with Farouk, a doctor in Syria hoping to move his wife and daughter to safety as war and terrorism strangle his home. Ryan chooses not to depict too graphically the suffering Farouk escapes, but the details he includes are nevertheless piercing. When a woman is publicly flogged for adultery, Farouk disgustedly notes the faltering Arabic of the man instructing the beating: “He was German, Farouk guessed. He couldn’t look away from him, this blotched, exotic specimen, this convert, filled to the burst with moral rectitude, with excitement at his new station, at the dream he was living.” The next section follows Lampy, a brokenhearted lad pining for his lost love whose education at the elite Trinity College across the country hastened their inevitable breakup. In the third section, we’re outraged by John, an accountant whose illegal activity and general lousy behaviour make him downright unpleasant. In John’s old age, we bear witness to his reflecting on his life’s wickedness, and we cannot help but ponder age old questions about repentance, regret and forgiveness.
The final section brings these stories together and the revelations moved me to tears. Cleverly using a sort of free indirect discourse, Ryan develops his characters so meticulously and dives so deeply into complex themes of identity that you’ll feel you’ve just finished a grand and epic novel, not a short work of fiction. Ireland is now a nation of immigrants, a haven for refugees, and there’s no better an author to document this profound change than Donal Ryan.