CBR Bingo Square: Time
I mentioned my summer of Irish fiction to my former mentor, and after recommending Dorothy Macardle to him, he enthusiastically recommended Donal Ryan, and especially his newest book, Strange Flowers, to me. Turns out one of the libraries where I hold a card had a digital copy available, so I checked it out (and ordered two of his previous novels) and got to work.
Y’all, it was a good recommendation.
The novel unfolds in distinct parts, each named for a book of the Bible, beginning with Genesis and ending with Revelation (there’s an Exodus and Song of Songs and Wisdom in there as well, and I think perhaps one more that I am maybe forgetting). While it unfolds during some of the same violent, alarming time period as Anna Burns’s Milkman or Audrey Magee’s The Colony, this isn’t really a Troubles novel. Instead, it follows one family, the Gladneys, from the early 1970s to 1990 or so (i.e. a nice long stretch of time), in their little village of Knockagowny in Tipperary, beginning with how Paddy and Kit Gladney’s twentyish-year-old daughter leaves their little farm one day and simply does not return, only to reappear five years later as though she left last week, offering no answers about why she vanished, though the results of that five year absence come trailing in her wake nonetheless, and other mysteries arise in the village (for instance, why does the wife of the Gladneys’ landlord arrive abruptly at the house to get in a screaming match with Moll once she returns?). In particular, what trails along behind Molly is a tall young Black man from London named Alexander, who throws off balance the delicate equilibrium the Gladneys achieved with Molly’s return. (I hasten to add that he is anything but villainous. In our modern internet parlance, Alexander is very much a soft boi, from his surface to his core.)
Maybe it’s trite to quote it here, but I think of that line that opened 500 Days of Summer: “This is not a love story. This is a story about love.” Because it very much is, and about many kinds of love: Kit and Paddy Gladney for each other, and for Molly; Molly’s struggle to feel lovable at all (“I never felt right inside, Mam. From the time I was ten or eleven. There was something wrong with me”), and her son’s similar but different struggle; Alexander’s deep well of love that finds few who can receive it fully, though his friendship with Paddy becomes a beautiful thing; the complicated bonds between the Gladneys and other people in their village, too, particularly their relationship with their landlord’s family. (I’ll mention that this is a novel that is full of good dads, unlike McGahern’s Amongst Women, and the moms ain’t shabby either; the heartache that characters experience is about other choices and hardships and complexities.) At times this is a story about how love causes immense pain; at other times, and ultimately, it is also about how love is also that which heals.
The prose is deeply lyrical and lovely, and Ryan’s narratorial voice is confident and consistent, even as he moves from character to character. If I have one complaint, it’s that the section that focuses on Molly’s son, Josh, feels a bit sprawling and occasionally shapeless compared to the deft precision and control of other sections, but this is a small gripe about a novel by an author who shows a deep compassion towards his characters and their sometimes-guarded but always tender hearts. These are people it’s a pleasure to be around, and get to know a little better, and if this is one of Ryan’s weaker books, as the Guardian reviewer seemed to think, then it’ll be a pleasure to delve into the rest. (He does have a new book, the enticingly-titled The Queen of Dirt Island, coming out later this year.)