Donal Ryan is considered to be one of Ireland’s leading young writers. I’ve been meaning to read him for some time and just finished his latest novel, his third, the beautifully moving and at times beautifully sad All We Shall Know. It is a story about the dead ends that we all continue to create for ourselves.
The narrator is a young Irishwoman, Melody Shee. I found her very hard to like, as I suspect Ryan intends. The first few sentences of the novel set the tone: “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’d have killed myself by now if I was brave enough.”
The chapters each represent a week in Melody’s pregnancy, from “Week Twelve” to a coda, “Postpartum.”
Pat, her husband of thirteen stormy years, leaves her and she becomes a pariah in her close knit and parochial small town. Melody also becomes the object of her in-laws’ hatred for exposing Pat’s frequent visits to prostitutes in nearby Limerick City.
Her own father, a devout Catholic widow, is devastated by the news but despite his own strong religious beliefs he lovingly supports his daughter. He is the only purely decent character in the novel and I admire the way Ryan balances his struggle between love and doctrinal devotion.
Melody tries to find Martin but his family have gone to England in search of seasonal work – “gone tarmacaddanin” as the Travellers call it. Instead she meets Mary, another young Traveller (Travellers are itinerant native Irish clans similar to the Roma or Gypsies) who has left her husband because she cannot have children, sparking a wild and violent inter-family feud.
Melody takes to nineteen-year-old Mary partly because she is haunted by the high school suicide of her best friend, Breedie. Melody callously betrayed Breedie’s confidences in order to become a part of the Cool Girls, a prerequisite to attracting high school jock Pat. Quite rightly, Melody blames herself for the bullying and harassment that led to Breedie’s suicide.
As you can tell this is not a very happy book but there are some uplifting moments as Melody learns a glimmer of compassion and self-awareness from her father and from Mary. I like the way Ryan allows his characters to be complicated and to not always act in the best ways possible but to be believably flawed. Even self-destructive and selfish Melody began to grow on me before the end of the novel.
A touching story about responsibility and consequences, well worth reading, despite an overly neat and sentimental ending.