A review of Strange Flowers by Donal Ryan
Sometimes life calls for a beautiful book. The kind you can sink into with a sense of relief, or gratitude. The kind that’s filled with vivid strokes of language, painting a place and its people into existence. The kind that fills you with a certain not-unpleasant ache, a bittersweet recognition of what it is to be alive. The kind in which maybe not a lot happens, but which you leave with a sense of wholeness that can only come from a satisfying story. I was fairly sure I would find such a book in the form of Donal Ryan’s Strange Flowers, counting the author as I do among my favourite living English-language writers. Having read a few disquieting, not to say upsetting books lately, I felt in need of beauty – and I wasn’t disappointed.
Relatively compact at just over two hundred pages, Strange Flowers is a novel in which not a lot of action seems to take place. In the opening pages twenty-year-old Moll Gladney goes missing, leaving behind her devastated parents, Kit and Paddy, in their cottage in rural Ireland. Five years and not twenty pages later, she is back again, only this time with a stranger in tow: ‘a gently spoken black man from the land of the old enemy’. The fact that Moll appears to have run away from her London-born husband, Alexander, and their baby is soon smoothed over, washed clean by the irrevocable passage of time that is so beautifully reflected in Ryan’s rhythmic, measured language. Though Alexander might be the first Black man in the area, he and Moll and her parents build a new life together, and his son, Josh, grows up surrounded by love. Later we encounter Josh as a lost young man, cast into turmoil by the deaths of his father and grandfather, run away to London in an echo of his mother’s flight. Down three generations, Ryan draws lives with a light but assured touch, allowing us to glimpse small flashes of everything that matters so we come to know his characters intimately.
Strange Flowers is a book about being lost. It is also, happily, about being found. This doesn’t go for all the characters – several, be they major or minor, like the father of Alexander’s childhood friend Syd – remain broken throughout, adrift on the currents of a life that doesn’t seem to want them. For all that it contains a pleasing symmetry, a sense of circles being closed and closed again, there is an undertow of sadness to the novel that rubs off in the reading and leaves a faint but definite imprint. Many of the themes it touches on – class, racism, misogyny – are exactly that: touched upon, revealed as fragmentary experiences that jar the otherwise smooth flow of events. They are so brief they almost go unnoticed, and yet they exist – moments for us to ponder and draw out into a bigger conclusion. On the surface a story of prodigal children, of how it feels to lose yourself and then to be found, the novel has a restless depth to it, undercurrents of themes that go beyond family, identity and faith.
Strange Flowers is about all these things, but it is also a novel about writing. As a young man in London, Josh tussles with his fledgling craft: for almost the entire section devoted to him, he reads a story aloud to his girlfriend over the course of several evenings, fearful that she is laughing at his work. His struggle to express himself is moving, but his story – a retelling of Jesus’s healing of the blind man – just so happens to be one of the most devastating stories-within-a-story I think I’ve ever read, and it is here that Ryan gives voice most clearly to the novel’s deeper message that all is not right with the world we see. It seems to be a device of his – to contrast beautiful language and imagery with the tragic or cruel – and in this multi-layered novel it is used to particularly good effect. In a reflection of the world as it really is, Ryan’s style of writing has ‘balanced some fragile scales’.
While the story is moving and the characters believable – likeable, too, almost without exception – it is without doubt the strength of Ryan’s prose that makes Strange Flowers the book it is. Insistent use of long sentences broken only by commas and ‘ands’ gives the novel an audible, consistent rhythm, while his descriptions of the natural world in particular are lyrical and vivid. Flowing sentences are peppered with imagery that seems gentle yet sharply observed: ‘there’d be this fresh, airy smell off him, like he’d been washed by wind,’ Josh remembers of his grandfather returning from his postal round. While it’s easy to become almost too absorbed and read it very quickly, this is a novel that benefits from slower enjoyment, a closer examination of the text.
Though the jacket copy might give you to believe that I’ve already spoiled the mystery of the book – where Moll disappeared to and with whom she returns – Strange Flowers in fact contains another secret, the revelation of which I never saw coming. Like the rest of the book it is gentle, not dramatic; a twist that is anything but overdone. It is, perhaps, even a little frustrating – Ryan seems to drop us into an entirely new story and leave it again just as fast. Related to this is my lingering feeling that while all the characters are credible, the women of the novel seem at times a little flat – there is much more to be said about them, I felt, though of course it is possible to argue that about any life. And, in the end, Strange Flowers works so well because of what it doesn’t give us. It is a mere taste of several ordinary lives that somehow manages to be complete.
Just like his character Moll Gladney, Donal Ryan ‘knows the gaps that can open between people, and the depths they can run to’. In this lyrical, luminous, evocative novel, he plumbs those depths with apparent ease, though a look at the structure and language shows with what care it has been crafted. Tender, moving and above all generous, Strange Flowers is literary fiction of the most beautiful kind.