Strange Flowers – Donal Ryan
The anticipation is thrilling when you start a new Donal Ryan book, and it finishes with a mix of satisfaction and longing – this form continues with his latest novel. Strange Flowers is a beautifully written family drama that treats us to a cast of characters that take the story through events and scenes that are carefully crafted with shifting modes of tradition, absorbing relationships, captivating twists, and leaves us fully satisfied. From the uplifting dignity of honourable people, through shocking events, to the biting hardships that families often encounter, this book is brimming with wonderful storytelling.
Set in the 1970s, in rural Tipperary in Ireland, Paddy and Kit Gladney are tenant farmers, deferential to their landlord, warm-hearted, an honest work ethic and a religious faith that provides the bedrock for their lives. Their only daughter Moll, as a young adult took the bus to Nenagh, the train to Dublin, and they have no idea what happened her after that. The grief and the ensnaring torment Paddy and Kit felt, condemned them to “a solemn half-life of work and prayers and weakening hope, and the earth spun and the moon phased and the rain fell and the sun shone and their hearts grew heavier and heavier with grief.”
Five years after Moll’s disappearance the prodigal daughter returns to Knockgowny, to the open thankful, joyous arms of Paddy and Kit, whose prayers have been answered. Moll is reluctant to explain why she ran away and why she returned. Her parents continue with superficial conversations rather than probe and risk pushing her away. Eventually, the secrets start being revealed and the most shocking was that Moll had moved to London and married a black man, Alexander and they had a son, Joshua. Alexander is a man of integrity and deeply in love with Moll, so much so that he followed her back to Ireland, unsure of the exact address but driven by his determination to hold his family together. They eventually settle into the rural environment with Moll’s parents in a landscape as foreign to Alex as he is to the people of the region.
“The greenness of the place. Everywhere greenness, trees heavy with it, hedgerows dappled light and dark and every shade of it, rolling fields of grass and green hills as far as his eye could see, and a lake below them in a silver line and, at the far side of it, below the blue and white and grey horizon, more greenness, more grassy hills and forests.”
The relationship Alex developed with Paddy and Kit was genuine and brilliantly illustrated the changing perspectives of Irish people during a time when Ireland itself was becoming more open and cosmopolitan. The theme of religion is woven throughout the story with chapters titled after books of the old and new testaments like Genesis and Revelation, many religious references are often used, and a story Joshua writes and reads to a girl based on a retelling of Jesus’ life. The emotional and personality traits of the characters are so keenly observed and intelligently portrayed that it creates a profound connection with several. The relationships between the family members and the landowners, the Jackmans, has an intergenerational association. A connection that also illustrates the changing norms, outlook and mood of an evolving world that gets smaller and smaller.
Donal Ryan can create a story around the lives of seemingly normal people heading in a clear direction only to be knocked off course into turbulent waters. His stories captivate and when fully brought to life leave an imprint on your heart and mind. The diversity of personalities is becoming a trademark of Donal’s. I would highly recommend this book and I would also like to thank Random House UK, Doubleday and NetGalley for providing me with a free ARC in return for an honest review.