Book Review: All we Shall Know by Donal Ryan

All We Shall Know by Donal Ryan is  quite possibly his best yet. The author has latched onto a winning formula with his fourth novel, his first book written entirely from the point of view of one female narrator.

‘There’s some irreparable fault in me. There’s something broken inside my head that stops me being normal.’

All We Shall Know by Donal Ryan is the author’s fourth novel, written from the perspective of Melody Shee, a poet/journalist-turned-teacher who is pregnant by a young traveller boy. And though I had already read Ryan’s author biog several times before, I found myself Googling his credentials; not entirely convinced that Donal was not a pseudonym. And armed with the knowledge that the author is in fact a male and always has been, I’m still not convinced that All We Shall Know is written by a man. Because Donal Ryan’s female narrator is so achingly accurate, it is pitch perfect.

Melody Shee is a fallen woman. She has seduced her teenage student, Martin Toppy and is carrying his baby. A baby that she couldn’t conceive with her husband Pat. And she is no stranger to betrayal, having allowed her best friend Breedie Flynn to be thrown to the wolves by revealing a secret that ultimately led to her demise. Melody evokes the strong female characters of myth; with all the savagery of a modern-day Medea, she holds no prisoners. She has the ferocity of a Marina Carr heroine; in her language, in her thoughts, in her actions, she is unrelentlessly brutal. One can’t help but call to mind Hester Swane, the protagonist of Carr’s By The Bog of Cats, recently played brilliantly by Susan Lynch at the Abbey Theatre. Hester is on a vicious plot for revenge, having been jilted by her husband Carthage. Abadoned by both her mother and her lover, she seeks retribution and she will stop at nothing to get it. Hester executes her revenge physically; her violence knows no bounds. Although Melody refrains from physical violence, her scathing critiques of those around her are no less damaging. Like Hester, she too has an alter-ego but Melody’s is that of Mary Crothery as opposed to Hester’s black swan. But the parallels can’t be ignored. Once presumed a myth until they were discovered in Western Australia, the black swan represents the fragility in human cognition and knowledge gained a priori. Mary Crothery posseses the gift of foresight, she is a rare creature, she knows the sex of Melody’s baby but yet she cannot bear a child herself. A foil for Melody, Mary is her alter-ego, all the goodness that has evaporated in Melody, that once existed, shines through Mary Crothery. Melody leaves behind her ‘a procession of crying men.’

I’ve never been pregnant. I’ve never had an unwanted pregnancy or faced into the despair of not being able to conceive. I’ve never even tried to get pregnant so it’s virtually impossible to know exactly what that feels like. But I know what it’s like to be in trouble, to be so entangled in worry that it’s hard to see the wood from the trees. I know what it’s like to be an Irish woman who has suffered trauma in childhood; who has experienced grief and loss, who lives with the ‘burden of freedom,’ as Melody Shee, Donal Ryan’s new anti-heroine does when others around her have been lost to death and tragedy.

All we Shall Know by Donal Ryan – a tragic story seeped in history and culture

‘What is it in me that breaks them down? I’m bad, for sure. There’s no kindness in me.

Mary is something of an abomination to her community, she cannot carry a child and Melody is carrying one that shouldn’t be hers. Kevin Curran in The Guardian describes the protagonist as a ‘horrible person lacking in depth.’ If Melody Shee had any more depth she would be six feet under. A product of her environment, she stands for all women; the women of our history, our folklore, our culture. She is honest and unfaltering, representing the post-colonial fallback that causes our national identity to be inextricably linked with suffering and self-sabotage. The only thing that keeps her from killing herself is the inability to inflict more pain upon herself. Yet, she relishes the role of victim, a martyr for pain and suffering. Like a character from an Enda Walsh play (think The Walworth Farce or The New Electric Ballroom or even Ballyturk), she is incapable of changing the record and prolongs the cycle of misery she is entrenched in with every breath.

‘we’d turn away again from one another, and lie apart facing upwards and send words into eternity about babies never born…swirling infinities of blame and hollow retribution’

Though at times morose, there is a macabre kind of humour employed in All we Shall Know by Donal Ryan, executed through the language. Pat’s ‘fairly shitty seed’; Mary’s description of a ‘she-mickey’ (‘A man that has bad seed only good enough for making girls.’); Melody’s Dad’s refrain of ‘ah, boys’; Hornycords Hannigan, the perenially ’empurpled’ schoolteacher with a new ‘erection’ (read: extension) in his house; Melody’s referring to herself as ‘an old boiler in middling nick, gagging for it. A mad, horny bitch’; ’ Agnes’ description of Melody as a ‘Flibbertigibbet, forever flouncing about the place.’ The carefully placed humour highlights the deeply Irish penchant for suffering and self-flagellation. Melody is a ‘blemished soul’ incapable of allowing in love and never satisfied with her lot. Mary leaves her husband Buzzy because she feels he deserves someone who can bare him a child. Pat keeps on going back to Melody despite the obvious disdain she holds for him. The tragic character of Breedie Flynn is the only one who professes happiness which turns out to be thinly veiled abuse.

All We Shall Know by Donal Ryan is a masterpiece of Irish writing, a thoroughly convincing female-driven narrative with a wholly authentic voice, a strong contender for my book of the year.

Donal Ryan’s new novel All We Shall Know is published today, 22 September, available in bookshops nationwide.

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