The novel opens in contemporary war-torn Syria. Farouk, a doctor living with his wife and their young daughter in a town overrun by an anti-regime, multinational militia of fanatic Muslims (think: Islamic State), resolves to decamp from “this strange confluence of opposing certainties, this tiny Armageddon.” Thanks to people smugglers both corrupt and callous, however, the family’s seaborne flight goes horribly awry.
A mixture of grief and guilt now eviscerates Farouk, shredding to ribbons his will to live. In a searing passage, he walks out of his migrant camp on an unnamed Mediterranean island, wades into the sea and projects onto the universe his own despairing sensibility as he prepares to die:
“[W]hen he was sure he was far beyond his depth he flipped onto his back and looked at the long ragged tear of the galaxy, like a wound in the sky, weeping, and he exhaled and let his limbs fall still and he waited for the water to carry him down, and fill him, and slough his flesh and salt his guilty bones.”
Ryan now takes his leave of Farouk and the Mediterranean. Yet he continues to examine (again through a third-person narrator) the nature of emotional desolation, this time through the travails of a young man named Lampy in Ireland. Unfortunately, the section revolving around this working-class youth, who lives with his mother and maternal grandfather, “Pop,” in a nondescript small town, proves uninspired and dreary. Lampy remains besotted with an ex-girlfriend who dumped him. He also has long-standing anger-management issues. Only the presence of Pop, delightfully roguish and bawdy, steeped in the local vernacular and keen to alleviate his grandson’s unhappiness, provides an occasional break from the mundanity.
If you’re wondering what Lampy has in common with Farouk, imagine your puzzlement at not finding out even once you’ve finished reading about the lad and progressed to the following section, narrated by a repentant criminal named John. Curiously, Ryan seems in no hurry to reveal any links, however tenuous, between the three characters.
When it comes to John, the author recovers his form; here is a contrite and distraught elderly man revisiting his myriad transgressions, the details of which turn out to be at once discomfiting and engrossing. With a deft touch, Ryan implies that John’s decades-long penchant for cruelty was the tangible expression of a sinister childhood belief that some people are unworthy of the gift of life. That’s what John thought of his younger brother Henry (and quite possibly himself) after older brother Edward, their parents’ favorite and a budding star in the Irish sport of hurling, suddenly dropped dead of an undetected heart condition just shy of adulthood:
“I had no brother only Edward in my child’s mind; Henry was an impostor, an aberration, he didn’t deserve a life. I willed nightly that Edward be resurrected and his place in the ground taken by Henry, or for time to be folded back on itself and for Henry’s heart to be cursed with the aberrant flame and not Edward’s.”
At 181 pages, “From a Low and Quiet Sea” is scarcely longer than a novella. This works to its advantage in two ways: the gleaming prose doesn’t lose any of its luster through overexposure, and Ryan’s calculated decision to wait until he’s fully three-quarters of the way into the proceedings before bringing to light the often life-altering intersections between Farouk, Lampy, John, Lampy’s mother and Pop doesn’t tax the reader’s patience.
To be sure, the author has sacrificed sustained character development in favor of a punchier three-story sequence featuring the personal tragedy or moral failing of one protagonist after another, followed by a closing section that doubles as the novel’s linchpin. The overall outcome, however, is undeniably affecting — all the more so given Ryan’s skillful mapping of the stories’ various imbrications, which become apparent in the revelatory finale. Indeed, “From a Low and Quiet Sea” is too meticulously wrought and too artfully concluded to feel inchoate or truncated. Yet it does leave you wishing that Ryan had lingered a while longer with each of his disparate yet nimbly linked protagonists.
Rayyan Al-Shawaf is a writer and book critic in Lebanon. His debut novel, “When All Else Fails,” will be published by Interlink Books in March 2019.
From a Low and Quiet Sea
By Donal Ryan
Penguin. 181 pp. Paperback, $16