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book review

Braiding lives of a Syrian refugee, a failed 23-year-old, and elderly accountant

(Globe photo illustration; Getty Images)

Author of two highly acclaimed novels and a collection of stories, Donal Ryan is one of Ireland’s talented younger generation of writers, a group which includes John Boyne, Mike MacCormack, and Eimear McBride. His second novel, “All We Shall Know,’’ was a piercing account of an Irish woman who finds herself pregnant by her 17-year-old pupil rather than by her husband. His new book, “From A Low And Quiet Sea,’’ like its predecessor, is both short and intense — but this time Ryan sets part of his story in dramatically new territory.

The novel is told in four sections, the first three of which initially seem unrelated. The opening shows Farouk, a doctor, trying to flee Syria with his wife and daughter. The second section is set outside Limerick and follows 23-year-old Lampy, who works at an old people’s home. The third section, also set near Limerick, is the confession of John, an elderly accountant and lobbyist. Only in the fourth section, told from various points of view, do we learn how these three men are connected. A number of writers have used similar structures, notably Colm McCann in “Transatlantic’’ and more recently Lisa Halliday in “Asymmetry,’’ but it is not without its perils: The reader having become invested in one situation may be reluctant to invest in another, entirely different one. In Ryan’s accomplished hands, however, we care about each of his three men — their hopes, their fears, their longings — and yet willingly move on to the next.

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Each section displays Ryan’s range as a writer. Farouk’s story is written in a graceful, formal third person, with an almost unbearable reserve. It opens with Farouk telling his daughter a bedtime story about how trees talk. The trees, he says, “know the rule, the only one that’s real and must be kept . . . Be kind.” Even as he talks, distant gunfire is audible from the civil conflict. “The war had come slowly, had accreted around them.’’ One evening a woman is dumped outside the hospital where Farouk works, her clothes bloody from a flogging, a sign round her neck saying “ADULTERESS.’’ Then there is the crucified boy. Farouk’s father has told him “if you observe a man closely and properly you’ll eventually come to know the shade of his soul.” Farouk thinks he can trust the dark-eyed trafficker who flatters and intimidates him into paying for passage. Alas, the reader knows all along that he is wrong.

While we follow Farouk through several months, Lampy’s section takes place on a single wintery day. “Lampy remembered how his heart would break when he was small, watching all the snowflakes die their deaths.” Having failed to get into university, he lives with his mother, a hospital administrator who reads books about angels, and her boisterous, profane father. Both are devoted to Lampy, but their devotion is no consolation for his previous girlfriend having left him, nor for his ambivalence about his current girlfriend. Lampy, like so many of the people Farouk encounters, is disobeying the trees. He easily turns to violence when frustrated but doesn’t take out his anger on the elderly people at the home where he works. Indeed he worries about his boss allowing him to drive them to their medical appointments without an accompanying nurse. It is this van journey, beset by mechanical difficulties and icy roads, which forms the central plot of the novel.

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John’s confession, both his apologia and his life story, is told in the first person. In his eloquent, educated voice he describes the sudden death of his adored older brother and the devastating effect this has on his family. At first John strives to replace Edward but, lacking his courage and his grace, he turns to cruelty, kicking a classmate in the balls and then spreading a rumor that his ancestors did Cromwell favors. “That was the seal broken on my bearing false witness against my neighbours.” As soon as he inherits his father’s land, John sells it and sets to making money both legally and illegally. A wonderful scene describes him buying a bar of gold just for pleasure. He marries at 25 and, at 45, falls in love. His thwarted passion drives him to commit the heinous deed which he is at long last confessing.

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In the short final section these vivid narratives come together, and we understand what has been hiding in plain sight in Lampy and John’s stories. Such is Ryan’s devotion to his characters that none of this feels willed but rather like the best kind of revelation. Long before Part IV, however, we begin to understand how Farouk’s father’s words resonate throughout the novel: “But there are men alive who will do evil without pause . . . and there are men alive who would rather die than harm another, and all of the rest of us fall somewhere in between.” Ryan writes with brilliant empathy about those in between.

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FROM A LOW AND QUIET SEA

By Donal Ryan

Penguin, 192 pp., paperback, $16

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Margot Livesey is the author most recently of “Mercury,’’ a novel, and “The Hidden Machinery: Essays About Writing.’’ She teaches at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.