Donal Ryan’s From a Low and Quiet Sea is a slim novel in four sections. It revolves around the lives of three unrelated men: Farouk is a Syrian doctor, about to flee the country with his wife and daughter; Lampy drives a bus for the elderly in Ireland and has problems in his love life; John, also Irish, is a lobbyist, whose past sins are gradually disclosed to the reader in a confessional manner. Each character is given equal space consecutively, roughly 50 pages, and in the fourth part, Ryan begins to tie the stories together. The novel is a moving and realistic account of these three men, each faced with trials and tribulations of varying degrees that all revolve around love and loss, told in language that is concise yet often profound.
The sea, like the river, is a common motif for writers, but it has lately taken on more societal connotations with the emergence of the refugee crisis. We all know the photo of the dead boy on the shore, and it is partially this ethos that Ryan taps into: “My wife is afraid of the crossing, of the sea,” Farouk explains to the traffickers who are to deliver him and his family away from Syria. Lampy drives patients to hydrotherapy, in stark juxtaposition to the dangers that water pose to Farouk. Tormented by his past, John, whose story I find the strongest in the novel (evoking in its subject matter Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man), has a vivid nightmare of a boy drowning in a lake:
His head was barely breaking the surface, bobbing desperately as he tried to free himself from the weeds’ grip. I could just make out his eyes, wide with terror, as small waves lapped against his face. I could hear him splutter and choke; he was starting to inhale water. He hadn’t breath enough to call out, though he must have heard his mother and father and all the others shouting his name just around the bend of the lakeshore. He was using one hand to keep himself up as best he could with a wild, flailing, outward stroke. He must have been reaching downward with his other hand to the vicious tangle around his legs. I judged that he had a bare minute left of life, if even that. His arm would soon cede to exhaustion; those deadly little waves, mostly of his own making, would soon find ingress and swamp his lungs.
In terms of technique, Ryan joins the ranks of many other writers who have recently defied the conventional use of quotation marks in dialogue (I recall the same style, for example, in Speak No Evil by Uzodinma Iweala), and, instead, speech is represented amid the narrative voice in a free-flowing manner, without the inverted commas, perhaps as an analogy to the overarching sea motif. I think its use is well-justified here. There are, however, some less functional elements, even if they are minor things. For instance, the novel begins with what could potentially turn into The Overstory part two, where trees are given lots of thematic space, yet this sylvan theme, as far as I am aware, is not developed beyond its promise on the first pages and, hence, sit somehow uncomfortably in the novel as a whole.
I cannot help comparing From a Low and Quiet Sea to Lisa Halliday’s recent novel Asymmetry, as both novels feature seemingly unrelated short stories. However, while Halliday is subtler and only implicitly explains the connections, Ryan explicitly ties the stories together in the denouement, resulting in the sort of a revelation that, together with the short length of the novel, makes a second read rewarding too. It is an intricate web of connections that Ryan builds here, and it all makes sense at the end, whereas with Asymmetry you might feel bewildered even after you finish. Another point of comparison is the way that both authors manage to create three-dimensional characters, especially in cases of cultural appropriation. Farouk, Ryan’s Syrian creation, is not a flawless victim of persecution who serves only to arouse pity in the Western reader, but a man who, for instance, struggles with his masculinity as he sees Martha, his wife, talking to another man. Therefore, these stories breathe realistic life, and are enjoyable even as stand-alone pieces. But even better, Ryan builds from these individual pieces a great, uniform ending.