Sometimes you come across a book that is just so beautifully written and so intensely moving in its subject matter that it is hard to say anything about it other than ‘this is perfect’. That’s the way I feel about Donal Ryan’s new novel, Strange Flowers. Having finished it last night, I am still reluctant to write about it, partly because I just don’t feel anything I say can do it justice, but mainly because I simply don’t want to disturb the feelings of gratitude and privilege of being having allowed to read this book. However, if I don’t put pen to paper, as it were, then some of you now reading might never think of picking up this short but atmospheric work and that would be a terrible shame.
Like most of Ryan’s work the novel is set primarily in rural Ireland, in this case in County Tipperary, however, some of the more important scenes thematically are sited in London where two of the main characters try to find a place to lose themselves after traumatic loss sours their experience of home. In 1973, Moll Gladney vanishes from the humble bothy that she shares with her parents, Paddy and Kit, leaving no word of explanation behind her. For five years her devastated family continues with their daily round, Paddy working in the mornings as the local postman and in the afternoons walking the marches of his landlord’s property, keeping an eye on the stock and carrying out any work that might need doing to maintain the land. Then, just as unexpectedly as she left, Moll returns and following her comes her husband, Alexander, a black Presbyterian bringing with him not only his parents but the son, Josh, that Moll has left behind.
While the love that Alexander feels for Moll is patiently obvious to everyone, her feelings about her husband and child are less clear and it is apparent that there is more to the story of her disappearance than any of the family knows. Alexander stays on in Ireland and gradually finds a place for himself in the community, playing hurling with the local team and building a landscape gardening business that looks fit to thrive and help change the fortunes of the Gladney family. And then Alexander is killed in a road accident and the fragile equilibrium that the family has achieved is once more shattered. This time it is Josh who takes himself off to London, working at whatever job he can find while he struggles to make his mark as a writer. From this point in the book the family story is intercut by Josh’s retelling of the story of the blind man cured by Jesus, a story, he tells us, that has to have more behind it than appears in the gospels.
And this is one of the major themes of the book, that however much we know, or think we know, about the truth of a matter, there are always circumstances, details, outcomes, that are omitted from the telling. Just as we don’t know all the circumstances behind the life of the blind beggar, including what happened to him after his ‘miracle’, neither do we know the reason that Moll left all those years before nor truly understand what it is that is motivating Josh. The other major theme, it seems to me, is the nature of love, the power of love and the sacrifices which that love, seen most often here, within the family setting, is prepared to make. No one reading this book can doubt Paddy’s love for his family, a love that widens to include Alexander and Josh when they make the crossing over the Irish sea. Nor can there be any question of the love that Alexander feels for Moll, even though he knows, as do we, that this is a feeling she is not able to return. Where love is not to be found is in association with power. Lucas Jackman, the Gladney’s landlord, abuses his power in the most atrocious manner and Josh‘s retelling of the gospel story forces the reader to question the extent to which Christ’s miracles were an act of love or if they were not rather part of a publicity seeking campaign designed to boost the persona of the man calling himself the Messiah, a man Ryan seems to suggest who has been overwhelmed by his followers and to have lost all his authority.
However, the ultimate power of the book lies in the beauty of its language. As you read you feel that every word has been placed not just with precision but also with the same love that Ryan is celebrating in the story he depicts. He is, without doubt, a brilliant writer, far better than I am. I look back over what I have written here and feel that I have come nowhere near expressing the beauty or the force of his novel. All I can do is ask you to read it and experience the power of his words for yourself.
With many thanks to Doubleday and NetGalley for the review copy.