Irish writers have had a disproportionately large impact on anglophone literature for centuries, and Donal Ryan continues that tradition with All We Shall Know, a deeply-rooted yet unmistakably modern narrative. This is Ryan’s third novel, initially published in Ireland in 2016, but its recent American release brings Ryan to a much-deserved international audience. Those looking for the understated approach to Irish domestic storytelling, as in the short stories of Mary Lavin or Patrick Boyle, will perhaps be taken aback by the directness with which Ryan tackles issues of marital strife, social inequity, childhood cruelty, and statutory rape. Melody Shee, after years of tumultuous marriage, is pregnant by Martin, a teenage Traveller boy she was tutoring. The book follows the pregnancy week by week as Melody, herself somewhat of a failed writer, journals the experience of her newly-strange life. In the process, she provides us with a striking and sympathetic illustration of how we are capable of being insightful, informed, and functional, while still going about our lives completely blind to our own motivations -- unconscious of the flawed foundations of our psyches.
It would be nice to believe that, in a pop cultural moment dominated by the likes of George R. R. Martin and Joss Whedon, we are past the point of praising a male author for writing female characters well. Yet for every Daenerys or Buffy, there is a Bella Swan or a Megan-Fox's-character-in-Transformers. The real world, too, shows us with dismaying regularity that we cannot take for granted the idea of treating women like human beings. Which is all to say that, here, in All We Shall Know, Ryan has pulled this off with impeccable, beautiful, and heart-wrenching skill. Writing not only about but from the perspective of a troubled, chronically vindictive, self-sabotaging, pregnant-by-her-teenage-student woman presents a minefield of ways for even the best-intentioned man to perpetuate poorly-written women, yet All We Shall Know does better than navigate this minefield: it transcends it. Melody is not unaware of the transgression she has committed, and she grapples at times with something like guilt, but ultimately she is more consistently troubled by the infant growing inside her than by her sexual intimacy with Martin. One could point to this imbalance as an oversight, another failure to take seriously the male victims of female-perpetrated assault, but that may be missing the point: All We Shall Know is a window into a specific psyche, one possible answer to the question “how does this happen?”
Melody is troubled, certainly, perhaps even mentally ill. But she is never a caricature of the hysterical woman. She is always herself: a human being, with emotional and psychological and spiritual complexity, with virtues and vices. Reading the novel is as much an experience of getting to know this person as it is of following a story, and Melody Shee is a person worth getting to know, because of and in spite of her relationship with Martin. Ryan's accomplishment extends beyond his narrator, though, to all the women in the book: Melody's newfound companion Mary Crothery, their respective mothers, Melody's childhood friend Breedie, her mother-in-law, etc. There are no one-dimensional characters, no phoned-in tropes passing as people. In a slim novel with a large cast, that is a praiseworthy feat.
As the weeks of her pregnancy tick by, Melody struggles to navigate the wreckage of her former life. She is preoccupied with memories of her failed marriage, relaying flashbacks of shouting matches and desperate intimacy alongside her present-action conversations with her bemused father and a wary Traveller community. She develops a friendship with one of these Travellers, Mary, even as she is haunted by her betrayal of Breedie Flynn years ago. As Melody and Mary’s friendship deepens, and Martin becomes embroiled in a Traveller feud, the possibility of reconciliation and redemption for Melody shimmers under the troubled waters.
All We Shall Know isn't revolutionary, or flashy, or epic. It is thoughtful, tightly composed, illuminating, and even inspiring. It captures a particular voice and cadence without descending into parody, and the prose is artistic without being ponderous. It is a serious novel that takes seriously the human labor of living and creating, and it has things to teach us about the world and about being a person in it. Which isn't to say that it's stuffy or dry or overly literary: it's entertaining and dramatic in all the best ways, but it also aspires to (and achieves) the important work of making the world better for its existence.
All We Shall Know is available now from Penguin Books.