I’m reading again. I had stopped, well almost stopped. And that is a crazy statement from someone like me. I was always one of those types who got in trouble for reading too much…. reading when I should be playing outside, reading when I should be tidying my room, reading when I should be eating dinner. Some of my strongest childhood memories are intrinsically linked with works of Enid Blyton, and I always wonder how the boarding school industry survived without the exquisite marketing of the Malory Towers girls or the twins at St. Claire’s. A world full all ginger beer laden midnight feasts and sneaky adventures… leaving bookworms everywhere begging to be shipped off to school (head teachers the world over could be heard breathing a collective sigh of relief when Harry went to Hogwarts).
But this bookworm stayed at home, learning about life and love from the pages of Judy Blume. Who can remember hiding Forever under mattresses as it was passed around convent school classrooms? Our generation’s answer to Edna O’Brien’s Country Girl or D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Months of my teenage life were spent following the fate of Joan Lingard’s Kevin and Sadie as they aimed to break down sectarian barricades in Northern Ireland or engrossed in the drivel that made up the Sweet Valley High Series.
As you can see I wasn’t always the most refined reader – but I was always a reader. Lately however, I found myself lacking not so much the time but the energy to read. Life was busy, the pull of social media strong and my physical surroundings far from comfortable. But now that things are calmer, cleaner and prettier, I am both reading and writing once more – the 3 month holiday helps I admit!!
And so to the point of this post – I have finished my first read of summer and here are my thoughts on Donal Ryan’s All We Shall Know.
Honestly, I turned every page hating what I was reading, wanting to put it down but unable to look away. It sounds trite to say I was gripped from the opening lines but in this case it’s true:
“Martin Toppy is the son of a famous Traveller and the father of my unborn child. He’s seventeen, I’m thirty-three. I was his teacher.”
I was hooked.
Interestingly, the novel that follows is not really plot driven, and Martin Toppy has at best a small, supporting role. This is not his story. It is the story of Melody Shee, the pregnant teacher who narrates this tale, and she is a woman for whom it is hard to muster any sympathy. This would not normally appeal to me, as I like to feel I have a protagonist to root for. But there is a grit and a reality to Ryan’s beautifully controlled prose that makes you invest emotionally even in characters you fundamentally dislike. His ability to write from the perspective of a pregnant woman, whose story defies stereotypes, is the strength of this book. I always worry when a male author tries to assume the narrative voice of a woman, especially one who is pregnant and confused, but I felt Ryan’s refusal to sugar-coat either the marriage of Melody and her husband Pat, or the moment of conception with Martin Toppy, made me believe in the voice of Melody. From here the book was on to a winner.
During her pregnancy Melody’s story becomes entwined with that of a young Traveller girl, Mary Crothery. A review I read a while back, I think it was in The Guardian, was critical of this element of the novel, feeling the portrayal of the Travelling community to be a tad lazy and stereotypical. I wholeheartedly disagree. Although I wasn’t blown away by the characterisation of Mary, I thought the depiction of the the modern Irish Travelling community was truthful, balanced and emotionally strong. Marginalisation, ongoing prejudice, a quest for education (or at least literacy), the treatment of women, infertility, the grudge culture and the prevalence of violence were all aspects of this life that were explored. I think all these issues are still real and present in the life of many Irish Travellers. I think the mutual suspicion with which the Travelling and Settled communities regard each other also remains today – a reality Ryan observed without feeling the need to moralise too much. Pretending things to be different would be being led by the politically correct agenda – a road Ryan never allows himself to be diverted down.
Like his stunning debut novel The Spinning Heart, this unflinching realism is where Ryan excels. He creates an Ireland we might wish did not exist, and a type of society that we may wish we had moved beyond. But we can identify. And that’s uncomfortable. And it makes us ask hard questions of ourselves and our world. And that is exceptional writing. This is not a work to make you smile, but a piece to make you think. Give it a try and don’t worry, because for all the grit there is also a place for sympathy, redemption and powerful friendship. Pick up a copy, grab a coffee and allow yourself to become immersed.
Hope you enjoy it as much as I did, xo.