From A Low And Quiet Sea by Donal Ryan: The Master of Poignancy

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From A Low And Quiet Sea exposes the inner lives of three men from contrasting backgrounds, ages, and current circumstances via heartbreaking inner monologues.  Donal Ryan eats, breaths, and writes the universality of the human condition: the secret selves, the joys and fears, the insecurity behind the flex, and, above all, the devastation of loss. At the end of the novel these three mens’ lives converge, showing that none of us are as disparate as we might think.

motorboat in body of water

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At the book’s opening, Farouk is a doctor in Syria, living happily with his wife and daughter. Inevitably his family attempts to flee, thrust into a world of fake documents, smugglers, and seafaring vessels. Everything turns out fine, as these things do. (No. I’m lying).

What happens to Farouk is heartbreaking. Witnessing his strength throughout the asylum and relocation process patches all. Ryan is a skilled surgeon, unobtrusively repairing hearts, leaving bare traces of a scar on our chests.

man wearing black fitted cap under orange clouds


Lampey is twenty. There are secrets in his family leading to general tension and his first heartbreak isn’t helping matters. His feelings are roiling and all consuming. Dixie (his grandfather) and Florence (his mother) have no idea how to help.

Lampey’s grandfather and mother get small sections at the end that bring everything home, in the most satisfying and poetic of ways.

man sits on chair near window


John could never be as good as his dead older brother so he decided to be evil instead. Not just evil-a lobbyist. One of the first. And one of the best. Surrounded by the material gains of his skills and steeped in influence, he spent his life plagued by a teenage ghost and the unfulfilled expectations of his father.

Ryan’s description of John’s unique skills of slander in this section are chilling. Let me show you:

I had the world of research done before I drove out west that Sunday evening and drank that pint. Which public house was patronized by the least affiliated clientele, least bound by the strictures of association and its attendant senses of loyalty and circumspection, with the least to lose and the most to gain in pleasure by the having and spreading of a story. What was the best time to go there. Where was the best place to sit. Who best to address. And all this discovered fragmentarily, without anyone recognizing my motive. My story, my something out of nothing, replicated itself like a monster virus, mutating to strengthen itself, rearranging its component parts and properties to better survive each retelling and gain in size and virulence: it leaped the border into Kerry; it travelled back the road into Limerick City; it forded the estuary to Clare.

close up of four leaf clover
Luck of the Irish, my ass


I’ve been a fan of Donal since I stumbled upon All We Shall Know and this book didn’t disappoint me. Not since Lamb’s She’s Come Undone have I seen a male author present characters’ emotional lives so incandescently. I deliberately used the word “poignant” as opposed to “sad” or “heart-wrenching” in my title. lists three definitions for poignant; all of them pertaining to the writing of Donal Ryan:

  1. keenly distressing to the feelings: poignant regret.
  2. keen or strong in mental appeal: subject of poignant interest.
  3. affecting or moving the emotions: poignant scene.

Something palpable in his writing encourages emotional responses. The plot itself is full of affecting scenes, outbursts, and twists, true. That is the obvious way Ryan incites reaction from his reader. But the death blow is the characters inner recitation of said events. In these passages the writer breeds empathy with his devastatingly universal utterances, laying us all bare. The accuracy of what his gaze derives would be terrifying if Donal weren’t so loving: turning the mirror upon his reader feels like a mother’s caress on a fevered brow.

sheep on a mountain
Irish sheep: As internally conflicted as the scene is peaceful

His sentences are long, lush with beautiful vocabulary. Where my girl Oates sprinkles commas, making her sentences choppy and anxiety-provoking in times of stress; Ryan streeeeeeeeetches his sentences into literary manifestations of depressive episodes with gorgeous erudition.

From A Low And Quiet Sea is a wonderful book, deserving of attention.

What was your favorite book of 2018? What books do you want to read in 2019? Let me know in the comments below! If you liked this review, please share it!

Check out my last book review here!

woman reading From A Low And Quiet Sea







Megan writes everything on Ish Mom. She possesses a bachelor's degree in psychology, a flair for theatrics, and a whole lotta nerve. She lives in the Midwest (and loves it) with her wonderful husband and three young boys.
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