Book Review by Frank O’Shea
Donal Ryan: All We Shall Know. Doubleday. 187 pp.
The core of this story is laid out in the opening sentences. ‘Martin Toppy is the son of a famous Traveller and the father of my unborn child. He is seventeen. I am thirty-three. I was his teacher.’ You would have to think that there is enough there to form the basis for a strong novel and that is what you get in this quite outstanding book by Tipperary writer Donal Ryan.
The speaker and first-person narrator is Melody Shee, and her story starts with a chapter headed Week Twelve; each succeeding chapter takes her pregnancy a further seven days until her delivery at Week Forty. She is married and though a qualified teacher she is unable to find permanent employment in post-boom Ireland, so she has to settle for casual work helping Traveller children to read and write.
Melody is a mess, seemingly incapable of any reaction other than over-the-top vituperation when things don’t go her way. Not surprisingly, her husband Pat leaves her when she tells him that her pregnancy is a result of a brief encounter with a man she met over the internet. She forms an unlikely friendship with a younger Traveller named Mary who has been rejected by her husband and her own community because she is unable to conceive; her worst tormentor is her own mother. Ryan conjures a story from all these elements and more.
The novel has a kind of subtext, rare in these days of political correctness: the idea of woman as bully and its corollary of man as victim, particularly in a relationship. Although Melody’s husband is far from perfect, he is treated abominably by her. We learn too that her best friend at school committed suicide after being snubbed by her in favour of the popular children.
Then there is Melody’s mother, also a bully who treated her husband as inferior and passed that idea on to her daughter. That man, Melody’s father, is a tragic figure, almost the only character treated sympathetically in the story. She comes to realise that he is ‘my lovely quartermaster, in charge of a store of unconditional love.’ He is described standing beside his window, looking forward to the irregular, almost random visits of his daughter. Like many fathers of his age and time, he is out of touch with modern times and his comments are rarely more than ‘Oh, Ah. Boys o boys’ or ‘Ah, now, love, come on now, it’ll be all right, everything will work itself out in the end.’ Those speech marks, by the way, are not found in the book, but the reader becomes used to their absence.
The other element treated in the story and which is not usually found in fiction is the inner working and social structure of Traveller society. The different families here – Crotherys and Folans and Toppys – sometimes need violence to sort out problems in their relationships. The sanity and sympathy with which the author treats their customs and life choices is one of the strengths of the novel.
There are many times when you get cranky with Melody but you wonder if that is the right reaction. It would be easy to dismiss her as having mental issues or problems dealing with the wider society, but you gradually come to sympathise with her position and to realise that part of her problem is her refusal to be a victim. Although no attempt is made to explain the madness that had her seduce a student in her own home, the resolution is satisfying.
This is Ryan’s fourth novel, each one outstanding, and at least two available in this country. It is interesting that, despite their success and the prizes that each has received, Ryan recently had to return to his day job in the Irish public service.