After two previous novels and a short story collection, you could say that it’s been a quietly successful early career for this writer from County Tipperary. He’s taken down the Guardian First Book Award, the EU Prize for Literature (Ireland), the Book of the Year Award at the Irish Book Awards, and the writing.ie Short Story of the Year Award. And yet, even among literary types, it is probably still too early to call him a household name. That could be because of the quiet and measured tone that characterises all of his work so far, it could be due to his often dark and upsetting subject matter, or it could be that, in the world of Irish literary novelists, he has a lot of people to compete with.
Whatever the reason, All We Shall Know might well be the novel that finally brings his name to masses. And that’s not because he’s ditched the darkness or suddenly lightened the mood. It’s because the book is just that bloody brilliant.
When, after only reading the opening page or so, we discover that 33-year-old Melody Shee has become pregnant at the hands of a 17-year-old traveller who she was teaching to read and write we are already intrigued. When she states that she’d have ‘killed herself by now if she was brave enough’ we’re hooked. And when we learn that all this has happened behind the back of a husband she has long been trying to have a baby with, we realise we have the makings of a heartbreaking and gripping work of fiction. And Donal Ryan has done all of this in less than two hundred words. If anyone fears that he might then burn out they needn’t worry. Unravelling the story through chapters headed by the weeks of Melody’s pregnancy, Ryan amps up the tension with almost every paragraph.
But even if it does have all the tension of a bestselling thriller, it is actually the characters who make this such a delightful piece of work. Flawed though she might be, once we delve into Melody’s relationships and her past it becomes impossible not to sympathise with the depressed and spiteful person we see before us. When Melody meets Mary Crothery, another traveller she is trying to teach, we find ourselves in the presence of another disturbed and fascinating woman who it’s hard not to admire. And Melody’s dad, peripheral as he is at times, is crucial to some of the most touching moments in the novel.
Any Cop?: With All We Shall Know, Donal Ryan has presented us with a potential prize-winner and an early contender for book of the year. It’s rare to find a work of fiction that is so successful in blending its gentle considerations of the lives of women with a palpable tension that never peters out. Throw the delicate and moving representations of the traveller community and the plight of shamed women in a religious environment into the mix and you’re looking at a novel that will appeal to a huge range of readers. Ryan just hit the big time.