This is my review of All We Shall Know by Donal Ryan.
With a masters in journalism, a frustrated would-be writer, her prose searing and insightful in print, but foul-mouthed in her speech, self-absorbed, quick to fly off the handle, swinging between extreme attachments and violent dislikes, unstable to the point of being a little mad, the inaptly named Melody is difficult to like. Donal Ryan contrives to hook us onto this sad, often violent tale, by the power of his quicksilver flow of words, the original, striking descriptions and wry Irish turn of phrase which makes one wonder how such articulate people can so often fail to avert trouble by sheer verbal skill alone.
We know from the first paragraph that Melody has got herself pregnant by seventeen-year-old Martin Toppy, a pupil almost half her age, the handsome, illiterate son of a famous Irish Traveller. Although not prepared to risk telling her husband Pat the truth about the baby’s parentage, it is clear that she expects the pregnancy to bring to an end what has evidently been a tempestuous marriage, with Melody’s unpredictable, unreasonable behaviour the root of the problem . As Melody reveals her past, layer by layer, it becomes ever more apparent that her ability to relate positively to others has been blighted by a profound sense of guilt over her treatment years before of her former best schoolmate, Breedie Flynn. Melody's current striking up of an almost obsessive friendship with the young Traveller Mary Crothery becomes an attempt to atone for the past actions which haunt her. Even in this, she may be accused of a degree of manipulative control-freakery.
Judging by this and Donal Ryan’s first novel, “The Spinning Heart” which I found superior perhaps because less intensely bleak as regards the unrelenting piling up of misfortunes, the author’s central theme is the interplay of dysfunctional families and neighbours in close-knit, claustrophobic small-town Irish communities, riddled with Catholic guilt, struggling to adjust to external pressures for change.
If I had not known to the contrary, I would have said this novel was the work of a woman, as the chapters chart the course of Melody’s pregnancy, week by week. Yet I am not sure a woman would be likely to take with such apparent ease the course of action she takes at the end of the novel, by way of expiating past sin.