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book review

Donal Ryan’s dark, layered tale of a teacher’s illicit affair with a student

‘All We Shall Know’’ is a dwarf star of a novel: small, dark, impressively dense. This isn’t to say that it’s difficult. This is the Irish writer Donal Ryan’s third novel, each a work of literary fiction — structurally intricate but not experimental; linguistically alive but not distractingly so — that goes down easy. Ryan writes books that both win prizes (“The Spinning Heart’’ won the Guardian First Book Award) and can be finished in a day.

Rather, “All We Shall Know’’ is dense in that its few pages (under 200) contain great richness. The novel displays a narrative and thematic compression that is even more impressive given the novel’s disorderly melodramatic content. (Illicit affairs, forged birth certificates, and blood feuds all pop up.)


The novel opens without any dithering about: “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.” The rest of the novel takes these compressed factual statements and unfolds their emotional implications, giving us a slow drip of information about the narrator’s past while also driving us toward a future moment: the birth of a child.

Why does Melody Shee, the guilt-hollowed, highly intelligent narrator, sleep with her student? In part because her marriage went septic long ago. Melody and her husband, Pat, married young, and over the years they’ve grown “so wrapped in one another for so long it was as though we stopped seeing one another as separate people, so being hard on each other became like being hard on ourselves.” Ryan examines the deadening compulsion and sick pleasure to be found in intimate sniping, where hatred of self is projected outward only to boomerang back, creating a Möbius strip of cruelty. Terribly bleak yet terrifically done.

Why does Melody hate herself so much? Though other factors are entertained — including her chilly, perpetually dissatisfied mother — we learn that Melody’s self-loathing arises from an act of betrayal. When in high school, she turned on her best friend in order to curry favor with the popular kids; tragedy resulted. (In an otherwise great novel, this struck me as too neatly causal. Our messy selves aren’t explained by single childhood events. Call it the Rosebud Fallacy.)


Ryan’s two previous novels were about contemporary Ireland — the roaring Celtic Tiger that suddenly went quiet in 2008. Here, the Travellers, an ethnic minority who’ve lived itinerantly on the margins of Irish society for centuries, point to an older way of being. Mary, a young Traveller Melody befriends, claims to have “a taste of the vision”: “I know when there’s trouble on the way: I feel it like an aching in my chest, a heaviness of dread.”

Melody experiences an “unknowable longing” for Martin’s body and Mary’s friendship but also for the Travellers’ camp itself — “an alien place, full of things and people inscrutable to me.” Here and elsewhere, the Travellers are exoticized — not by Ryan but by Melody. She desperately wants out of her “graceless state,” and the Travellers attract not in spite but because of their difference. Whatever its motivation, Melody’s love for Mary is genuine. It lightens and transforms her.

All of Ryan’s novels employ limited narrative perspective; the kind of language Ryan uses is limited by the kind of language his characters use. In “All We Shall Know,’’ university-educated Melody possesses a poetic imagination, often looking to the cosmological to apprehend the terrestrial. The life cycle of stars helps her to understand the narration of a human life: “how much meaning would be shed in the telling, in parsing years . . . to single lines; imagine the mass these lines would have to hold, like dwarf stars, collapsed in on their own completeness, becoming heavier and heavier until they supernova and cease to exist.”


Ryan frequently joins clauses with a simple “and” in order to render the plenitude of emotional and sensory experience. These cascading lists can mimic an overwhelming sense of life’s bitterness: “a day came when I chose others over her, and I abandoned her, and went off into the world without her, and laughed about her secrets and her livid pitted skin.”

But they’re also used to recreate the wondrousness of the world: “and the smell of the morning air and the weight of life inside me all seemed even, and easy, and massless, and perfect, and right, and every deficit seemed closed in that moment.” Remarkably, “All We Shall Know’’ makes a novel about the heaviness of existence into something that is even, and easy — and, at times, perfect, and right.


By Donal Ryan

Penguin, 180 pp., paperback, $16

Anthony Domestico, an assistant professor of literature at Purchase College, SUNY, has a book on poetry and theology forthcoming from Johns Hopkins University Press.