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Strange Flowers      
Donal Ryan
Doubleday, UK, 2020
Penguin Books, 2021

There is a whole new wave of young Irish writers making news. Millennials such as Sally Rooney, Naoise Dolan, Nicole Flattery, Rob Doyle, Sheila Armstrong – I could go on and on. Unlike their predecessors, this new lot is free from the burden of religion and nationalism, and thus much of the writing could be set anywhere. Trinity Collage could be Yale, thinking of Sally Rooney’s Normal People (though class does rear its ugly head); while Dolan has set her debut novel, Exciting Times, in Hong Kong (nodding also to class albeit from afar). I enjoyed these novels, replete with mobile phones and social media, though the millennial navel-gazing became a bit much. Where both prose and plot popped right off the page for me were in the short-story collections by Flattery and Armstrong. Flattery’s work (Show Them a Good Time) is nicely edgy with lots of dark humor; while Armstrong’s (How to Gut a Fish) is somewhat experimental and even darker, both refreshingly original, with absurdist touches, and a minimum of millennial trappings. I’m currently reading Rob Doyle’s third book (my first), Threshold, an autofiction full of writerly self-reflection as he backpacks round the globe taking drugs while working on a “novel.”  I was put off at first by such self-absorption, but full credit to Doyle for pulling me along.

Of this new ilk, one writer harks back to earlier times: Dolan Ryan, born slightly ahead of the millennials (1976).  Strange Flowers, his fifth novel (a first for me), is Irish to the core. The old themes enter in marginally, especially as this novel is set in the 70s, but it’s swept along by the personal histories of an array of characters. What makes it different: at the forefront is the country itself:

The greenness of the place. Everywhere greenness, trees heavy with it, hedgerows dappled light and dark and every shade of it, rolling fields of grass and green hills as far as his eye could see, and a lake below them in a silver line and, at the far side of it, below the blue and white and grey horizon, more greenness, more grassy hills and forests. Streams of flowers dazzling through the green along the roadsides and the lanes. Branches drooped with berries reaching out from the hedgerows, everything blooming and buzzing and dripping with life. Even the rain had a shimmer of green to it.

Ryan has no hurry in the telling of his tale. One slows down for the lush, descriptive passages as we follow twenty-year-old Moll, only child of Paddy and Kit, who is first introduced to us as having disappeared from her rural home:  “. . . the world turned cold when Moll went, and what light was cast was dappled dark with shadow. She left no note behind, just made her bed and packed her few things . . .” A “full five years went past, and more” and then she walks back into her old life. But an explanation never comes.  Her parents, gentle folk, don’t dare ask. And neither does anyone else. They learn she has been living in London, working in a hotel, and that’s it.

Then appears a Black man from London claiming Moll is his wife, the mother of his child. In an amusing touch, the village priest has one concern about this news: Was this Black man a Catholic?  He asks Paddy to find out.

I don’t wish to give any more away. We learn little by little the history of Moll and her new family, with surprises as every turn. And later a good part is given over to her son, Joshua, who himself will take off for London. Only late in the novel are we privy to what propelled her to leave. And to what pulled her back.

I love the slow rhythm of the novel and its careful attention to detail. The prose rolls along like a trickling stream, with divergences, but ever sure of its direction. Filled with lyrical passages – of the beauty of the Irish countryside and the (mostly) gentle folk who inhabit it– Ryan brings an earlier generation of writers to mind while having a distinctive voice all his own.

It is worth reading all of the new millennials, but for something nicely retro, pick up Strange Flowers. Read it for the great story, for the lovely prose, and for the divine sense of place that is Ireland.   J.A. 


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