I miiiiight try to read the entire Man Booker longlist this year. I know I won’t finish before the winner is announced, and definitely not before the shortlist is announced, but I’ve never read an entire longlist and I really like the looks of this one. I’ve already read and reviewed Snap and Warlight from the 2018 nominees, and today I’m going to talk about my third read from the longlist, Donal Ryan’s From a Low and Quiet Sea.
About the book: Farouk and his family attempt to flee their country when trusting a stranger’s plan for illegal travel becomes a better option than complying with strict religious laws. Lampy struggles with his identity as a fatherless child while staying in his family’s home into his twenties and working (sans-degree) with the elderly. John confesses the sins of his past that may stem from difficulty coping with his brother’s early death. All three men have loss in common, and their unique life paths bring them all together on a cold Irish road one winter evening.
“What’s in the past can’t be changed and what’s to come can’t be known and you can’t give your life to worrying. Sure you can’t. All you have to do is be kind and you’ll have lived a good life.”
There are some fantastic quotes in this book, but don’t be fooled by a moment’s uplifting tone: From a Low and Quiet Sea is a devastating story of little redemption, and the only humor you’ll find within is fleeting or bitter. These are characters struck down by tragedy that breaks them, turns them cruel, or leaves them twisting helplessly beneath the weight of pain they can hardly bear. There is no sentimentality, but there is a constant need for healing and forgiveness driving this story that makes this book perfect fodder for binge-reading. The very first section sets the reader on a path of unstoppable destruction that never tears away the hope of resolution, of a better future. The reader wants Farouk to escape– and reads the entire novel searching for a way out, for all of them.
But it’s best to go into this book with as little knowledge of content as possible, so let’s talk more about the format of this “novel.” From a Low and Quiet Sea is divided into four sections, each told from the perspective of a different man (though the previous perspectives do come back into play at the end of the fourth section). The first three parts take up exactly 50 pages each, which is a symmetry that I rarely see in novels and that always impresses me– it takes a poetic skill to fit everything important, and only what is important, into a particular length of writing (though Lampy’s section seemed a bit longer than necessary to me). But as impressive and interesting as this format is, I’m tempted to call From a Low and Quiet Sea a series of connected short stories rather than a novel.
In theory, I do like books with untraditional formats. There’re even interesting structural elements within each of the character sections here– Farouk’s format is very much a plot-heavy chronological timeline, interspersed with a few crucial made-up stories from his life. Lampy’s section alternates between introspection about his past and the events of a single, important day in his present. John’s section focuses entirely on his past, in the form of a sin-by-sin confession. But my struggle with the format of this book was that the very first section was a strong favorite for me– and, I suspect, will be for most; after that section ended, I knew I was just reading the others to get to the end to see how it all came together. I did not care about Lampy and John’s stories as much as I had Farouk’s. Lampy’s was by far the least propulsive for me, though John’s also left me confused– I thought I had found a connection between John and Farouk’s stories that I would have loved, but by the time John’s section ended I still wasn’t entirely sure whether that connection existed in the novel, or only in my mind.
What I did love undisputedly was Ryan’s writing. The prose is beautiful without verging on ornate, every character feels distinct and real, and none of the events feel forced or constructed to fit a flimsy plot. The lack of quotations around dialogue keeps the story flowing smoothly, the past fitting seamlessly with the present, and characters’ thoughts float naturally into actions. Ryan is in full control of his language.
“If you say something enough times, the repetition makes it true. Any notion you like, no matter how mad it seems, can be a fact’s chrysalis. Once you say it loud enough and often enough it becomes debatable. Debates change minds. Debate is the larval stage of truth. Constant, unflagging, loud repetition completes your notion’s metamorphosis to fact. The fact takes wing and flutters from place to place and mind to mind and makes a living, permanent thing of itself.”
My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This was a fast and beautiful read, and I’ll definitely be reading more from this author, starting with All We Shall Know, which has been waiting on my TBR for quite a while now. I also found that there was an interesting similarity between a detail at the end of From a Low and Quiet Sea and at the end of Warlight, my last Man Booker read, though in Warlight this detail made me incredibly sad and in From a Low and Quiet Sea it delighted me. The only real delight I had while reading this book, actually. This was by far my favorite of the three Man Booker 2018 selections I had read at the time, although now that I’ve read a fourth I have a new favorite. That review will be up tomorrow!
Which titles do you plan to read from the Man Booker longlist this year?
The Literary Elephant