Reading Ireland Month: All We Shall Know by Donal Ryan

I engineered these passions, these trials, to convince myself I was living a life.  Even misery was better than boredom.  

When we meet Melody Shee she is in her thirties, living in Limerick, Ireland, and twelve weeks pregnant.  The father is not her husband but the seventeen year-old Traveller boy whom she tutors in reading.  Her husband has left her, and she’s contemplating suicide.  We learn that she carries the blame for a childhood friend’s death inside her, and has for years.  We learn that she and her husband have suffered through two miscarriages, and he decided to get a vasectomy to spare them both any more pain.  We learn that her father and her mother didn’t really have a happy marriage, but that her father is the one person who loves and supports her perfectly.  He’s the one person whom she doesn’t want to disappoint, but she can’t quite ever feel worthy of his love.29752909

True confession time:  I almost abandoned All We Shall Know somewhere between pages 50 and 77.  Frankly, three things kept me going.  1.  It was a gift from a blogger friend, 2. it was short (186 pages,) and 3. I realized that, while it began bleakly, it was most certainly NOT dull.

I have the marvelous blogger Fiction Fan to thank for helping me to realize the last bit, in a comment exchange on my previous post.  She said she doesn’t really abandon books for being too sad, but rather for being dull.  It made me reconsider All We Shall Know in a totally knew light.  I realized that while I was saddened by the events in the novel, I was also invested.  I wanted to know what was going to happen to Melody Shee and her baby.  I alternately sympathized with and cringed at Melody’s passions and anger, but I couldn’t stop reading about her.

This is a lyrical, beautifully written book, full of sadness, full of intense emotions, and full of life.  There is a compelling, propulsive quality to the writing, and Ryan is masterful at making the reader care about a heroine that is troubled, to say the least.  Some may find her unlikable. I did myself at times.  But she is a fully realized character, someone who has suffered, made profound mistakes, and carries their weight with her always.  I also marveled at Ryan’s skill in depicting pregnancy.  It made me recall my own experience, the bodily sensations that change and surprise, and even made me have a dream about being pregnant.  The chapters begin at Week Twelve and end at Week Forty, so as the novel progresses the impending birth comes closer and closer.

Melody’s life takes a turn after meeting another Traveller, a young woman named Mary Crothery, a distant relative of the baby’s father.  She also turns to Melody for help learning how to read, and they strike up an unusual and fascinating friendship.  I found that her introduction into the narrative was a real turning point for me in that her character lightened the story up considerably, and softened Melody’s abrasiveness.  Her story line is fraught with peril as well, as she’s left her husband from another Traveler clan, and his family doesn’t like it one bit.  Yet even Melody’s sweet father is enchanted by her.

And the sky and the earth and the cut grass and the chirruping of birds and the low drone of insects and the slant light across my father’s happy face and the gleam of wonder in Mary Crothery’s eyes and the smell of the morning air and the weight of life inside me all seemed even, and easy, and messless, and perfect, and right, and every deficit seemed closed in that moment.

I have a Goodreads shelf labelled “Sad But Worth It” and this resides firmly on that shelf.  It’s a beautiful, raw book about impossible messy relationships and the hope for redemption.  I know I won’t soon forget fierce, flawed Melody, and I will definitely read Ryan again.

Have you ever had this kind of reading experience before, when a book you almost abandoned turned around for you?  Do you have a recommendation for an Irish writer or novel you love? Let me know in the comments.

reading-ireland-month_2017Cathy at 746 Books once again hosts Reading Ireland Month, a month dedicated to exploring all that’s good in Irish books and culture.  Check out all the fun here.

20 thoughts on “Reading Ireland Month: All We Shall Know by Donal Ryan

  1. I am glad that this worked out for you. I usually find myself drawn to emotional reads so this sounds like one that I would like. Fab review!

    I have had a few books surprise me. Sometimes, I go into books with low expectations and then they end up being way better. Other times, I struggle with few, slow chapters only for the book to turnaround when I almost giving up. So yeah, it has happened to me and I do like it when a book surprises me 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Awwwwwww, thank you for the lovely comment! 😀 I’m glad you decided to read on, firstly because it’s a great review and secondly, because I’ve been thinking about whether to go for this book for a while and you’ve helped me decide that I should. There – I got you to read it and now you’ve got me to read it. Isn’t blogging wonderful? 😀

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  3. Glad the book turned out good after you decided to stick with it! I’m sure there must be at least one book I’ve read where I had the same experience but I just can’t recall. I think if I like it I forget about the fact I almost abandoned it. 🙂

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  4. So glad you stuck this out and liked it in the end! I can see why depressing books can be hard to read, but for some reason I personally love them! This sounds wonderful – I love the sound of the pregnancy premise! Maybe next year… 🙂

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  5. I love it when that happens. One book which I reread almost immediatley was Yann Martel’s Life of Pi and I was not at all impressed but then ended up remarkably impressed. At first, I thought something was literarlly incredible, but then I revisited in detail (making careful notes to prove my point – heheh) and saw how carefully he had constructed some things in the story and it was not only credible but it was very clever and got me thinking about so many different things. (If you’ve read it, you’ll probably guess what this was all about, but if you haven’t, I hope it’s not too much information to risk spoiling anything.) You and Naomi have ensured that this author is on my TBR: thanks!

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  6. I don’t know that I ever felt like I should abandon a book and then it turned out to be worth it. Usually, it is like waking up on a weekend. By the time I was fully awake, I realized I had nothing to do. I also haven’t read a ton of Irish lit other than the staples, James Joyce and Roddy Doyle. I also read Brian Friel’s play Translations, which is about the British wiping out Irish as a language (I think….it’s been a while).

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