Strange Flowers by Donal Ryan review – a compassionate tale of homecoming

Five years after she went missing, a woman returns to rural Tipperary in a novel that explores all forms of love

When a young woman vanishes from her parents’ home in rural Tipperary it can mean only one of two things: “Moll Gladney was either pregnant or dead, and it was hard to know which one of those was worse.” What other reason could there possibly be for a “good little girl” to forsake the Edenic comforts of these soft green hills? Strange Flowers, Donal Ryan’s sixth novel, opens in the early 1970s, in the wake of Moll’s disappearance: an empty bed, a missing suitcase, a one-way train ticket and a vast and terrible silence. It is a perfect lure of an opening. Perhaps too perfect.

Half a decade later Moll returns as abruptly as she left, but remains tight-lipped about her departure. Her parents can’t bring themselves to ask: “No question was enough of a question, and no answer could change the truth of the moment.” Strange Flowers tells the tale of this fraught homecoming, chipping away at Moll’s hard fought secrecy. Revelations loom. But the question that hangs over this novel is whether any explanation can compete with the immaculate mystery of none at all. For as Ryan writes: an absence “is a thing that can’t be touched ... pristine and incorruptible, holy almost”.

In Strange Flowers, Ryan, like taciturn Moll, has come home. This is a novel of the Ireland of his childhood – the hermetic rhythms, ceaseless scrutiny and class hierarchies of village life. The wider world may be changing fast – “all that new talk in people’s hearts and heads being turned, and the way they dressed now and the terrible music. And wars going on everywhere” – but in Knockagowny, the only thing that moves with any haste is gossip. And while characters may stray, most of this tale of turning seasons and unvoiced anguish takes place within walking distance of a single stone farmhouse: the home of Moll’s parents, Paddy and Kit.

Donal Ryan.
Donal Ryan. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

As Ryan describes this “green and yielding” landscape, his capacity for reverence is on full display. As ever, he builds exquisite sentences, aching to be read aloud. There is wonder to be found in every grove and glade, as two old friends discover on a twilight walk:

“On a rise in the centre of the newly visible field they can see a ring fort, its protective earthen mound blunted and diminished with the ages but still clearly visible, and its circle of sentinel trees, and they marvel at the realisation that they have the best part of a hundred years between them lived in this part of the world and never a thing known to them about this ancient dwelling place, this palace of fairies.”

Into this unhurried corner of Tipperary comes soft-spoken Alexander. He is, a policeman warily informs Paddy and Kit, not only English, and “a stranger to the area”, but “a black man”. Like Moll’s desertion, Alexander’s arrival will upend life in the farmhouse. The Gladney family will once again be a source of whispers, of “fables and yarns and tall tales and fairy stories and lascivious conjecture”.

A self-confessed “pretty lazy researcher”, Ryan’s inhabitation of Alexander and his son, Joshua, is disappointing. For a novel that so emphatically forefronts not just questions of prejudice, but of blackness and black identity, Strange Flowers achieves little beyond a gestural rendering of village racism. “He expected some times that people would begin to throw coins at him,” Ryan writes of Alexander, “as though he were a street performer, or a beggar, some kind of exotic mendicant.” But the novelty, we are told, soon wears off.

Ryan is far more interested in the quiet machinations of his characters’ hearts than in the era’s ferocious ethno-politics. Opening with “Genesis” and closing with “Revelation”, Strange Flowers offers an everyday testament of – and a testament to – the ways we love. There’s the “solemn half-life” that Paddy and Kit lead in Moll’s absence, their hearts weighted with grief. There’s the unexpected comfort Alexander finds in a friendship with Moll’s father, and Joshua’s first infatuation, which has him “locked in a dizzy orbit of desire”. And there’s the love that unmakes and remakes Moll, the prodigal daughter. Here is love as a weapon and a balm. Love as faith, fate and redemption.

Ryan is at the vanguard of contemporary Irish fiction’s magnificent resurgence, what Sebastian Barry, the country’s fiction laureate, has celebrated as “an unexpected golden age of Irish prose writing”. Strange Flowers may be the weakest of Ryan’s novels, but it is still a gorgeously wrought book – compassionate without dissolving into nostalgia. “Do your best to hear beyond the spoken, to see the quality of light in another’s eyes,” Ryan entreated readers in From a Low and Quiet Sea. In Strange Flowers, he’s taken his own advice.

• Strange Flowers is published by Doubleday (£12.99). To order a copy go to Delivery charges may apply.

Beejay Silcox

The GuardianTramp

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